Monday, April 2, 2012

CHAPTER II OF LIVING ON THE MOUNTAIN, WRITING ABOUT THE DESERT

Burnet, TX, roadside park
This is the second blog about a childhood memory of traveling to California, “to gypsy forever” in my father’s words. The first blog included pictures of postcards my mother collected on the famous odyssey West. In addition to these blogs, a short story and poems will be included in my forthcoming book, Postcards From Diddy Wah Diddy. Today, I am including two additional postcards from my mother’s collection for this blog. The Texas scenes are photographs on cards entitled “Blue Sky postcards” and show the area near Buchanan Dam where we camped out on our trip to California. Both cards feature a light blue Texas sky in the background.

A few years ago I also wrote a novel about the famous trip to Diddy Wah Diddy, one in which I was the narrator who, as an adult, leased an old blue Ford coupe and sat in my driveway in the car to evoke memories of the odyssey my family made in 1946. In this fictional account, I take the sky blue Ford on the road to Texas, attempting to find the place that my family camped out en route to California.

Here’s an excerpt from the novel that I finally decided not to publish. It begins with my drive into Texas:

“Driving had been easy; the coupe, a shiny blue top spinning through the Texas landscape, unwound toward its destination of Lake Buchanan. West of Austin, I accelerated the Ford, climbing to the Edwards Plateau, a place of rocky limestone hills covered by oak, juniper, and mesquite savannahs. My mother, Sarah Nell, had loved the homes constructed of native white rock and ‘everything spaced so far apart, while we waited for something to appear over the next hill,’ she had said. Deer crossing signs were posted everywhere, and goats, hooves poised on the trunks of mesquites, grazed on their leaflets.

“When I turned onto Highway 29 and glimpsed the green highway sign advertising Burnet, something loosened in me, and I felt Sarah Nell, Jacob, Suzanna, and Jake Jr. above me, chanting ‘Atta’ girl, come on now, you’re close, you can find it.’ I stopped to gas up several times, and the car skimmed along, drawn toward one of the most ancient geological regions in the world where outcroppings of granite guarded the secret, whatever it was, that had accelerated my family’s disintegration.

Long Horn Cavern, TX State Park, Burnet, TX
“In Burnet, I stopped at a grocery for directions to Burnet County Park, the place I tabbed as the site of the ’46 campout.

‘You want to go to Black Rock Park,’ advised an elderly woman with an overdone permanent. ‘It’s probably the oldest park and nearer to what you’re looking for. Ain’t no rock buildings like you talking about there now though,’ she added. ‘May have been at one time. How old you say you was when you come here?’

‘Eleven – over sixty years ago.’

‘Lordee, things been changed around since then.’ She looked at my silver hair, although her weatherbeaten face out-aged mine by ten years, if a day. ‘Could be Burnit County Park, up toward the dam. You’ll just have to do some looking.’

“I drove along Highway 29, eighteen miles west of Burnet to Buchanan Dam and located Black Rock Park above a boat ramp. It was an almost-deserted park with concrete picnic tables scattered about on sloping ground dotted with small water oaks, a place that didn’t fit the expanse of campground in my memory. Elevation above Lake Buchanan seemed low. I remembered a tall bluff away from which Sarah Nell had steered Jake Jr. daily in ’46. No bluff, no rock buildings housing bathrooms and showers, no telephone that had connected Sarah to civilization and Grandfather Ellis Paul in Louisiana. To me, the park was an abysmal failure, one that looked hospitable to daytime users but provided no set-up for full-time camping. I circled the park twice, feeling deep disappointment. ‘Don’t give up,’ my dead siblings and parents chided me. ‘Try the County Park.’

“The Ford coupe showed its mettle after I turned on Farm Road 2341 and climbed the hills around the dam, soaring along at fifty miles per hour. The sight of the ubiquitous prickly pear cacti strengthened my resolve – those plants had been the bane of one year old Jake Jr.’s daily tramps. Also, the elevation felt more like the high ground on which we had pitched camp. Everywhere, walls of orange pink rock loomed, a backdrop for the post oaks and cedars I had remembered as part of the ’46 landscape.

“Crossing a stone bridge, I rounded a curve and saw a sign on the left-hand side of the highway that made my heart race: Burnet County Park. However, it was even smaller than Black Rock, a cramped park with boat launch and a few tables at the edge of the lake. Glancing at my watch, I realized it was 6 p.m., and I hadn’t eaten all day. I began to feel that I was on a hopeless chase, searching for a memory that had either moved or never been quite like I envisioned. ‘Don’t go back,’ my family remonstrated. ‘There are more parks.’ Actually, there were two more: Inks Lake and Longhorn Cavern Park. An image of a rock building on a postcard labeled ‘Longhorn Cavern State Park’ flashed in my mind. Returning to Highway 29, I turned off on Park Road 4, veering into the entrance at Inks Lake first, only to find the gates shut against drive-throughs, a warning that reminded me I needed to find lodging for the night. However, I zoomed along Park Road 4 until I reached Longhorn Caverns State Park.

“The park was set among cacti and yucca, and I glimpsed a white rock administration building exactly like the picture on the old postcard Sarah Nell had kept in the bottom of her red leather purse. As I drove around the circle, I discovered a rustic water/observation tower and braked to a full stop, realizing that I had arrived on CCC encampment ground. I sat down at a limestone picnic table in a cluster of post oaks and began to cry. The place felt overpoweringly familiar; the reasons for Jacob bringing the family there felt right – the park was perhaps something he had helped build during his life with the CCC. The old administration building resembled a Gothic fortress, surrounded by a palisade wall made of native limestone and crystal formations taken from the caverns.

“I walked around in the heavy summer heat, the air alive with whirring insects in the oak savannahs. I realized the lake was nowhere near the site when I climbed the circular steel staircase of the tower and looked out windows cut in the heavy stone and couldn’t see water. Only the dam appeared in the distance. Longhorn Cavern State Park hadn’t been the first stop of the Diddy Wah Diddy trek. But why did I feel so linked to the place? A slight movement in the clump of yucca spooked me; I felt as though I was being watched and that something sinister had occurred here, sinister enough to cause my family to flee from the area. As close and hot as the Texas summer air was, I shivered. ‘Don’t give up,’ the family choristers urged me again, but when a truck pulled into the circular drive, I got into the Ford and sped off, giving up the search…”

Needless to say, I never found the campsite, just as I never published the part memoir/part fiction novel, but lately I entertain ideas of returning one last time…
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