A Big Blue Boot, Republican Ants, and Running Out of Time
2:00 P.M. JANUARY 15TH. CYPRESS CREEK, WIMBERLEY, TX, HAYS COUNTY
There is an invigorating comfort in having an aimless direction, somewhere you're going, but the option to either stay or pass through or both or neither. For instance, saying I'm going to Hawaii on vacation has a sort of alarming finality, as if the itinerary is already planned out with expected tourist sites and tourist places to stay that require advance booking and required time that you must leave, a required time you must depart, a mad dash to purchase just the right piece of mass-produced memorabilia to forever memorialize the once-in-a-lifetime experience. If I ever went to Hawaii, I don't think I would ever return there again, and the knowledge of that unfortunately wouldn't grant the expected savor the moment sort of immediacy one would expect. It would be similar to making forgettable small talk with strangers in a crowd of thousands at a concert with the preconceived knowing you would never see them again; there is no physical returning to an event, and a vacation to Hawaii would be just that--a manufactured event, a pre-purchased pocket in time with no guarantee of the possibility of return.
Although, I don't really know any of that, except when I do, and I suppose the same could be said for any form of travel, regardless of destination, a sort of you never step in the same river twice sort of deal. Except when you do step in the same river twice. Sometimes a drop of water says fuck this river and with enough rage-filled heat evaporates into the sky, becomes a drifting cloud of shade between sun and faraway patches of mountainous and lakey terrain, finds a speck of something in the atmosphere worth holding onto, descends back to earth, and gently weaves and winds its way back through the sloping ground that slips into a river bank of the exact same river, maybe a little up or a little down stream, but the same river nonetheless.
So when I visit places in Texas, it already feels like a return, like I have cheated some odds in being here once again, albeit the being is for the first time in many respects. First and foremost, I have chosen in this lifetime to return here. And I am still a tourist in the state, in the country of my birth, and when I say country, I mean Texas, which means I'm not a tourist, exactly, despite how much of the place I've never seen, smelled, or sat with--I was born here, lived here most of my life, went to school here, met my wife here, I've buried people here (they were cremated, but attending memorial services and scattering ashes just doesn't have the same weight to it). I don't really identify with or give a damn about America anymore--I'll return to that in the uncertain future many posts from now.
Speaking of returns, I returned again to Hays County with Chelsey and with the intention of going to Wimberly and because any search for home includes her. Plus, we enjoy each other's company and sitting side by side in the truck is one of the few guaranteed times that we won't compete as fiercely for one another's attention with our respective techno-device's screens.
She sat on a moldy bench and wrote while I took pictures of the creek and signs around the creek. There is a tension between wanting to just be present yet also capture moments and places we go. I don't even know why we go to most of the places we go, why we choose to stop, until after we've been there. It is a sort of gut feeling, a relearning to trust intuition. At times, it is beginning to feel like I'm going through the motions of setting up the tripod, filming, taking pictures. Yet, everytime, something or someone unexpectedly interrupts would could become a boring routine.
For instance, I sat down on the benches where Chelsey was writing, trying to figure out why we were there at this bacteria-infested creek in Wimberley, TX when I took a closer look down at my feet:
While there are 47 different species of Leafcutter ants, Texas has its own special species called Atta texana, or Texas Leaf Cutting Ants. The little out of place pile of leaves is what first drew my attention to these Tex-ants. They are much bigger than the house ants currently infesting our apartment bathroom and drinking our mouthwash. They are also bigger than any of the fire ants I saw growing up in Ellis County (one of my chores was to go around our acre and a half and sprinkle white powder ant-killer on the mounds). They use the leaves not directly for food or for nesting material; instead they use it to grow a special fungus, which they then use to feed baby Tex-ants. They don't rely upon any other food source, which makes these kinds of ants difficult to kill with baits.
I don't think any one political ideology has a monopoly on self-reliance; it is humbling to think that these ants are more self reliant than I or anyone I know is. However, their self-reliance is communal; they all pitch in, they all survive based on their own work. No bosses, no contractors, all are workers, even the queen--she doesn't give orders, she just starts the nest and has the babies. She also lives in the same colony with the workers, she doesn't isolate herself in some gated community or private isalnd. Also, before I exhaust the political/biological analogy it should be noted: while the majority of American libertarians/Republicans/conservatives are male, the entire ant colony--with the exception of a small minority of drones whose only job is to mate with new queens--are females.
4:16 P.M. PATSY GLENN REFUGE
After observing the ants, we made our way down Texas Highway 12 still in Wimberley searching for the Cypress Creek Nature Trail/Park and pulled off into an empty parking lot. Well, it wasn't completely empty.
While Chelsey played with the boot and went walking to the nearest Brookshire Bros. grocery store, I walked around the edge of the parking lot hoping to find the Nature Park. At the end of a little path not far from the parking lot, I found something that didn't show up on Google Maps.
I felt confused at how open to the public this wildlife refuge was considering there were no signs directing one to it. There were laminate labels for different plant species around the trail, most of which look pretty health, some of which looked dead or non-existent altogether.
I went further down the refuge trail and run into what at first appeared to be a small storage or maintenance shed, until I discovered it had a doorless opening, which I walked through.
I have seen deer blinds used for hunting deer, but never a biblical bird blind built for an Eagle Scout project with the intention of just feeding and attracting birds without the intention of luring them in to shoot the shit out of them. I wondered in further, not paying attention to anything other than the building and the birdies under the assumption I was alone.
Don't know how well I hid it, but I was slightly scarred shitless at unexpectedly running into someone who was squatting in a bird blind in the middle of Wimberly, TX. I took off out of there purdy quick, did a loop around the trail. This was not the first time I've run into someone on this project out of the blue, yet I haven't interviewed anyone. I went back down the trail to the parking lot and ran into Chelsey sitting on a bench next to the information kiosk and told her about what and who I had found. She suggested he would be a good person to interview and that fate had put him in my path, or me in his path, something to do with crossing paths on a path in wildlife refuge. So, I said fuck it, ran back to the truck, grabbed my gear, and recorded what was a phenomenal interview. I would show you the video footage, but the audio is completely inaudible due to radio interference from the smartphone with the external microphone, so you'll just have to take my word for his word.
Turns out, he was not a vagrant squatting in a bird blind. He was a local taking a nap instead of going to work. He told me that the bird blind was one of his local "secret spots," a place only people from there really know about. I asked him if he cared if I put it on Google Maps as a point of interest and he said people in Wimberley don't want their secret spots found. He said Wimberley had a reputation for weird long before Austin did, that locals had gone to great lengths to maintain their authenticity as a sort of artists enclave, a local only sort of town that managed to maintain a mortuarium on chain businesses within the city limits. He said it took the one HEB years to get the necessary permits and permissions to open a grocery store there. He talked about new housing developments for out of towners wanting to move in to Wimberley because of how special it was, but then trying to make into something more developed like Austin, He wasn't completely against the new planned communities since they "kept the rich people away from everybody else."
Toward the end of the interview, we talked about how to strike a balance between making an authentic home for yourself in a small town if you're not from there and how certain people are attracted to move to a place, move there, and then destroy the very culture/community that attracted them to live there in the first place.
I loaded up my gear and took my outta towner ass on down the trail and left Wimberley the way I found it.
4:53 P.M. RILEY'S TAVERN. COMAL COUNTY LINE.
I could hear screams and whoops from the patrons of Riley's on the Backbone biker bar as they watched the Cowboys-Packers playoff game. Before I heard them, I had forgotten both that Cowboys were still in the playoffs and that it was a Sunday. Neither one of us drink nor care enough about football to cross Farm to Market 32, so we kept on driving.
5:43 P.M. MAX'S ROADHOUSE. SPRING BRANCH.
We pulled off Texas Highway 281 for reasons I can't recall, and this was one of the only places we saw to pull off into. Chelsey tried using their wifi. Nothing but huge trucks on our side the parking lot and, again, the loudest sound aside from the traffic on 281 was the hollering from the patrons inside watching the game. Neither one of us bothered to check the score or go inside. We decided to get another Days Inn hotel and we would just wait 'till cell phone reception improved enough to finish making the reservations.
6:18 P.M. ESPERANZA MASTER PLANNED COMMUNITY, BOERNE CITY LINE, KENDALL COUNTY
With the sun setting, we missed the county line sign and found ourselves at the gates of one of those communities that keep rich people away from the rest of us. Translating the Spanish into English, it means "hope" or "expectation" or "promise" or "prospect" or "confidence". I don't know whose hope or what the expectations are, but we can't afford to live in a place with its own backlit sign. I was tempted to go up to someone's door, and when they answer, say somethin' along the line of "Aw, hell, I saw the sign out front and thought this was an outlet mall, didn't know people lived here, sorry about that!" We pulled into the Boerne Days Inn next to I-10 and spent MLK Day's eve in the cheapest motel in town, room 122, smoking :)
10:57 A.M. JANUARY 16. BOERNE, TX
Something happened in room 122 in the wee, glowing red digital hours of the Days Inn furnished clock. Chelsey was tucked in and sleeping and I couldn't yet. I had done the math and at the current rate of doing one a weekend, it would take approximately 5 years to see every county in Texas. Do I have that much time? I turn 35 this year. When I look in the motel mirror, I don't see it, but I feel it. Oh, MOTHER-FUCKER, do I feel it sometimes.
I feel it in the colds that linger a little longer in the lungs. I feel it in the gummy gaps in the back of my mouth that used to hold teeth I couldn't afford to crown on less than minimum wage plus tips. I feel it from when the 8 to 12 to 16 hour days turned into 2 or 3 or 4 weeks straight without a day off in kitchens, on grounds crews, in big box retailers, in restaurants/bars, on shop floors, standing, squatting, scrubbing, wiping, walking miles a shift, standing for hours in the same place, the mindful and mindlessly repetitive grabbing, squeezing, lurching, separating, chopping, dicing, hunching shoot little barbs of pain through kneecaps, right should blade, and heels out of nowhere. I feel it every time I have to ask Chelsey huh? because my hearing is already jacked from years of nightly exposure to bar music and daily exposure to commercial machinery.
Even though those years and that kind of work is behind me (for the moment) and all I physically do now is sit in front of a screen clicking a mouse and clacking a keyboard, my body hasn't forgotten. And I could be worse...I worked with guys in their 30s who were already diabetic, had eyesight issues, missing fingers, back problems, 6am shots of scope mouthwash on the down low behind the stainless steel line of reach-in refrigerators to get rid of the shakes so they could start their shift alcoholism, visibly missing teeth, missing minds with smokey mouths unaware of suds and spit collecting in the now smiling crevices that would repeat the same phrases and personas over and over and over again, tell the same bad stories that lose the one good element of surprise they had after the fifth time you've heard them tell it over drinks after shift and maybe you'd tell them you heard it before, but you've had enough drinks with them to convince yourself it's just as good a story as the first time they told it to ya last month. Fuck me sober, I'm running out of time. Do the math.
254 counties / 12 months = 21.17 counties
Okay, so I'm going to round up to 22 since we're not going to divide the counties. If I do 22 counties a month, by December, I will have
11 months * 22 counties = 242 counties
254 counties - 242 counties = 12 counties
12 counties left. In other words, I am going to visit every county in Texas by the end of the year. Why? Because I don't know if I'll have the time or resources to keep doing this five years from now, which probably means I will, but if I acted as if I did, then I wouldn't. Because it is a challenge, because it makes this journey more urgent because, well, it is urgent. And I can't fully explain how urgent it is right now, but it is and I will as soon as I can. Part of it has to do with looking for a permanent home, a little piece of land we can call our own. Maybe part of it has to do with esperanza. I made the following list before I went to sleep of the counties we had covered and would cover when we woke up.
(to be continued)