Jordan, the Longhorns of San Angelo State Park, and I
This trip started early on account of traveling from my apartment in WillCo to pick up my passenger from his apartment in Hays County. He's never been "primitive" camping in a tent before and I hope the slight drizzle that required me to trash bag all of the gear in the truck bed doesn't make the experience too primeval. I text him and wait for a reply by putting a blue tarp intended to be a ground cloth for the tent over the now stationary gear as an extra precaution--there are few discomforts as disgusting and unsettling as a partially saturated, sopping-wet in spots you don't discover until the wee hours of the flash light lit night wet sleeping bag. Still no answer, so I tap open a seldom used feature on my smartphone and make a--gasp!--phone call.
"Good morning! I'm here!"
"I brought coffee. In a can."
After a few moments of silence following the latest gruntterance, I hang up. Hang up? There is nothing to hang anymore, smartphones typically don't have wall mounted cradles. Back in 2011 when I lived in South Austin off of S. Lamar, this guy Jordan was my roommate, and he insisted that I get a smartphone. I finally relented and I haven't been without one since.
As the rain gently tapped and beaded against the black truck bed liner, I pulled two corners of the tarp between the truck and the open tailgate and gently slammed the gate shut hoping this would save me a stop at Home Depot for bungees or rope. If I slam the gate hard enough, I can hear the little metal tightener I used to fix the tailgate opener usually used on old screen doors to keep the wooden frame at 90 degree angles clank inside the tailgate if I slam it hard enough.
The door to the apartment slides open and I see the head and shoulder of a shirtless, puffy eyed Jordan squinting silently in my direction. Then the door slides shut again as he slides back inside, which is my cue to enter. I finish my smoke and go in, waiting for him to get ready.
The San Marcos apartment off of 35 and Aquarena Springs is neat and sparsely, yet lovingly decorated (thanks almost entirely to his roommate). A wall-sized Texas flag ties the cozy room together accented with a balance of books, dvds, a Texas license plate (the gaudy, someone swallowed a box of crayons and barfed up a license plate ones issued a few years back), and I see once again the black and white Mary's Medicinals sign I gave Jordan back in 2014 displayed in the corner of a bookshelf built into the wall.
I gave it to him the last time I visited before I moved back in 2016, a token given to me by a client from my time as a licensed marijuana courier in Colorado. For those of you raising your eyebrow at the licensed part (I mentioned this at work at Apple, and a co-worker said I was "legally riding dirty") it was the only time I've had my fingerprints taken electronically and digitally transmitted to the FBI since I was in jail, compliments of Colorado Department of Revenue--Marijuana Enforcement Division during the 2 days I spent in their office getting cleared for and issued the license. Had I ever been arrested/convicted for any drug related offenses, I wouldn't have been issued the license.
They meant business, bureaucratically speaking, and business was booming after the 2012 passage of amendment 64, with the cost of various licenses ranging from a little under a hundred to thousands of dollars a pop. And if you wanted to work in/run one of the over 500 dispensaries and grow facilities that had popped up seemingly overnight 2 years after Colorado legalized bud for retail, you had to go through the state to get one. I digress...back to the 2014 visit with Jordan.
He was living in South Austin with different roommates, biding his time until he could go back to Texas State to finish his Computer Science B.S.. It was a strange visit, he didn't really want to see me, and something left unsaid hung in the smoky, snarky retorts among roommates during House of Cards watching air that wasn't spoken until 2 years later when I returned.
After futilely attempting to insert contacts into dry, sleepy eyes, he descended the stairs above the 54 inch tv that approached wall sized in contrast to the affordably snug apartment living room.
"What do I need to bring again?"
"Cold weather clothes. It's supposed to get down to 40 tonight in San Angelo."
Yes, 40s is cold weather for most of Texas, and you will see full winter coats and woolen beanies come out whereas in Minnesota where I spent the last winter before returning to Texas, you will see people donning shorts in March/April/May if lucky enough to get a snow free day above 40 (it takes days consistantly above freezing to melt it all away). Also, unless it's snowing or at least 20, you will get looks and the occasional "Minnesota-nice" snarky comment in the form of a question about why you're wearing a beanie before the snow flies.
"I will die. By the way, I only got 3 hours of sleep."
"Bring a pillow. Ready?"
He grabbed his stuff and we loaded up in the truck. He took one look at my tarping job.
"That's going to fly off."
I thought he was probably right, but there was also a decent chance that he wasn't and I could get away with skipping an extra stop and expenditure.
A few minutes into our excursion, Jordan realized that his almost 6 foot lanky frame was too snug a fit for sleeping in a 97 Ford Ranger's single cab passenger seat.
"I can't sleep in this truck. It's too fucking small. If I'd have known this, I wouldn't have stayed up all night writing that paper and would have slept like a normal person."
"I thought you slept."
"For three hours. Three."
"Welp, I can pull over on the side of the road if you wanna take a nap."
"Why didn't you tell me your shitty truck was this small?"
"I honestly didn't think about it."
After a few histrionic whimpers, convulsions, and stomps of the floorboard, he attempted to settle into the unsuspectedly sleepless 4 hour drive to Tom Green County by cracking open the can of coffee and taking a swig while giving me the accusatory side eye.
I attempted to lighten the mood with conversation and observation. As I've seen on literally every trip I have taken through Texas, I spot a vulture gliding above the road.
"Ope, ope! Vulture! See the vulture?"
"My contacts aren't in, so, no, I don't."
"Did you bring your glasses?"
"No. When they broke, I never replaced them."
The part of the tarp closest to the cab began to flap audibly.
"That tarp is going to fly off."
"Naaaah. It'll be alright."
"O-kaaaay. I'm going to try and sleep now."
At first I was disappointed that he wouldn't be awake for the drive, but on second thought I wouldn't have to listen to the steady stream of sleep-deprived bitching, so maybe him sleeping wouldn't be such a bad idea. I turned the truck off of 35 into Kyle and start heading northwest.
"If you would have told me your truck was this fucking small, I would have slept last night like a normal person."
"What? You saw how small it was when I helped you move last year."
"I didn't ride it in it."
"I honestly didn't think about it. Chelsey's able to sleep in it just fine. I mean, if ya want, we can pull off--"
"Mmmmhmmm. Just drive. She's not as tall as I am. Guess I'll put my contacts in."
"You wanna stop off and see some of the places I've been to for my blog?"
"Not really. I just want to get there so I can sleep."
"How 'bout the Center of Texas? It's on the way."
Silence and a muffled sigh beckon me to continue.
"We're making good time and we'll be there 2 hours early if we keep heading straight there. We can't check in to the campsite until 3."
We arrive at The Geographic Center of Texas, the third time I've been there this year.
"Wanna get out?"
Without looking up from his iPhone, "No."
I position the truck such that the passenger window frames him and the sign and take pictures until he looks up from his phone.
I honor the request, and we head up a hill toward the nearby Heart of Texas Park.
I park the truck and we find discrete places to piss. It is a modest, slightly graffitied park with trees, picnic tables, and a look out tower.
Jordan ascends the metal stairs of the lookout tower and I follow.
We look out across the landscape, somewhere I assume is the elusive actual Geographic Center of Texas. I take more pictures. Jordan is not amused.
"Stop it. I don't like being in pictures."
"They steal a piece of your soul."
I couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic so I do my best to respect his wishes in that older-brother sort of way which basically means I'm going to have to be really clandestine if I'm to get away with taking any more shots of him for the rest of the trip.
Realizing that this will be my third trip to the center of Texas, I decide to do something a little different this time and head toward a point on the map that a user of Google Maps has identified as The Geographic Center of Texas a few miles from the Historical Marker. A few miles out, the road goes from paved to country song immortalized dirt road.
"Where are we going?"
"Don't know. Supposedly where the actual center of Texas is, according to Google Maps. I haven't actually been here before, so I don't know."
"This looks like Deliverance country. I have the perfect song." He plugs my FM Transceiver into his iPhone.
"Wait. Wait for it..."
I shudder and laugh as I remember the first and last time I saw the film. My family has a special sense of dark humor, and my brother is no exception. I consider starting a conversation about how the film unfairly portrays rural, Southern people, and how Texas differs from Georgia and the rest of the Dixie South, but having lived in Texas 30 years, in both rural and urban settings, I've had enough "you're not from around here, college boy/hippie/faggot" experiences to just continue laughing. We look at one another, roll down the windows all the way, and turn it up as we leave a trail of dust and banjo music behind us while the truck rumbles on in 3rd gear. By the time the song ends, we reach the point on the map. Nothing but fences, gates, dirt county roads, and an indecipherable ranch sign.
"We can stop off in Brady, gas up, and get food."
"You said we were going to do that an hour ago."
We make it to Brady, stop off at a Shell station. I gas up while Jordan goes inside. I feel the local eyes on me and dismiss it as my own paranoia. I finish the gas and move the truck since the driver of the truck behind us is mad-doggin' me and rapping his knuckles on his driver's side door. Part of me thinks the mother fucker can keep rapping his red neck ass knuckles on his truck 'till I get damn good n ready to leave and if he has a problem with that, I have a tire iron and a hydraulic jack handle behind the driver's seat. Since I'm working on my anger and judgemental tendencies, I look at the other 3 pumps and notice I'm at the only one with a green diesel handle (the other 3 were occupied when I pulled in). Once the pump handle pops, I quit pretending to dick with my phone why I keep an eye on Mr. Diesel truck driver in the side view mirror, flip the metal piece down to turn off the pump, put back the handle, and drive the truck to the front of the store.
Jordan comes out about when I pull up, gets in with some snacks and drink. I check the tarp in the truck bed, re-tuck it, then get back in the cab.
"Is it just me, or is everyone giving us the fuckin' eye?"
"Oh, no. They're lookin'. The woman at the counter inside was scowling at me until I gave her a 'Howdy ma'am.' Yeah, that's right, I know my people."
In 1999, the year my adopted father and Jordan's biological father died in a car accident when he was 9 years old, he, my sister, and mother moved to a 12 acre place out east in Leesburg, population 115, Camp County, while I finished my senior year of high school in Red Oak and lived alone in the mobile home in Pecan Hill. So, Jordan has a few formative years experience living in the more rural, non-metro parts of the state.
We also talked about computer games he's into playing at the moment. Ever since we were kids, we've played computer games. When he was really little, he used to sit next to me and watch me play old Microprose flight simulators, Maxis simulators like SimCity, SimFarm, SimAnt, when I lived at home. Whenever I would come back to Leesburg during holidays during college, we would play Age of Empires. Then, whenever we lived together in Austin in 2011/2012, he reintroduced me to computer games. I was blown away at how much better and more complex they had become. He showed me Portal and Civilization V. Whenever I came and visited him in 2013, he showed me Xcom 2. Wherever I've lived in the past 4 years, Denver, Minneapolis, and now Round Rock, we would on occasion play multiplayer games of Civ V, and he would usually win, and I would usually take too long (since he sets up the games, he always puts on a turn-timer).
Our conduct and topics of conversation go back and forth from that of child-like siblings to adults. We talk about credit scores (same as with the computer games, he has me beat on the credit score game by about 200 points). We talk about Mom. We talk about Chelsey (my wife) and Shadae (his girlfriend). He said he took her to the hospital recently and I quietly wonder why I didn't hear about this when it happened, but then realize one of the things we have in common is we don't tend to reach out to each other or anyone else when we're going through crises. Partly because we don't realize we're in a crisis in the moment. It often seems oddly familiar, especially being in a hospital with a loved one. Our Dad was in the hospital multiple times when we were growing up for heart attacks, angioplasty surgery, quintuple bypass surgery. Sometimes there's nothing you can do but silently wait and calmly hold the space.
TOM GREEN COUNTY
We pulled across the Tom Green County border around 3pm, and stopped off to take a shot at the county sign. I found a bit a cotton, which I collected and stuffed in the dash. Turns out Texas is the country's leading cotton producer, and Tom Green County is one of about 20 counties that produce anywhere from 100,000 to 500,00 bales a year.
We finally make it to the park, check in, and go to the River Bend Camp site, We were given a combination for the gate. Jordan is definately ready for sleep, but he is nevertheless awake, and present, for the most part. :)
We pitch the tent, which is much easier with two people. Although the tiny metal stakes only go a couple of inches into the rocky, West Texas ground. Since most of my tools are either at the house or in my other truck which was uncivilly stolen (small claims law suit still in progress to get it back, long story), we find a t-post nearby that we use as hammer and make do with that somewhat successfully. Once we set up camp, Jordan passes on taking a nap, and we go explore the trails by our campsite.
When asking him where he wants to go, he says, "You go your way, I'll go mine." He went to explore the Cougar trail, I went to explore the Lower Ghost Camp. I began to wonder how much of his life I've missed out on knowing over the years due to distances in years, geography, time, and emotion while I was going my way. Whatever did or didn't happen in the past, we're here now.
Once we reconvened, sun was setting and we decided to head back to camp.
"See any cougars?"
"No. I did, however, see a huge longhorn out of nowhere. I just turned around a bend of the trail, and there he was. And, when he saw me, he, like, repositioned his body until he was facing me head on."
"Did you pet him?"
"Heh, no! I backed slowly away."
"He just wanted you to pet him."
"I didn't want to get gored."
We headed back to camp and built a fire. We wrapped hot dogs in foil and impatiently put them on and near the fire with predictably limited, charred success. Idealy, you either have a grate to put over the fire, or you wait until the fire burns down to coals. We were hungry.
Halfway through the cooking of dinner, the wind picked up and pulled out one of our barely submerged tent stakes. We caught it before it blew the tent the rest of the way up and out. We both calmly handled the situation with the assistance of the lantern and minimal cursing. After another not so successful attempt to beat the stakes into the rocky ground with the t-post-turned-hammer, I put it on the side of the tent closest to the wind, and that held it in place for the rest of the night.
We ate the rest of the sausage and dogs, opened a pop-top-can of chili, peeled the label, and cooked it hobo style using the can as a cooking container. Jordan crawled into the tent to sleep and I sat outside and stared at the fire.
Once I burned through the wood we brought, I crawled into the tent with him. At the ages of 27 and 34, we had finally, officially camped together for the first time.
"Cool if I hop out to get a pic of this sign?"
Jordan doesn't look up from his iPhone.
"You're turning into Mom."
I pondered this as I hopped out of the truck taking pictures of the Gillespie county sign. Mom was and still is pretty notorious for stopping off multiple times during an errand turned extended, scenic road trip to check out things she finds cute or interesting or historical or useful, which we, as kids, didn't necessarily give two defiant, adolescent shits about. But, I realized, he was right.
My brother is becoming pretty good at delivering 4 word sentences that succinctly, perfectly, and inevitably end up leading to a profound reevaluation of my perspective and self-perception. (5 years ago, his early morning response to me awaking to the reality that I had drunkenly and unconsciously pissed all over our front door the night before that played a key part in me quitting drinking, "You have a problem.") I am doing pretty much the exact same thing that Mom used to do and still does, except now I am in the driver's seat. I get back in the truck, and we head the rest of the way to somewhere, anywhere, whereever home is, was, and will always be.