Road report: Heading home

Coreopsis along the highway through the Hill Country (Thank you, Lady Bird Johnson!)

Last Sunday I was in Austin, Texas, getting myself psyched to deliver the closing keynote for Stories from the Heart, Story Circle Network’s every-two-years national conference on writing memoir and life stories. My goal:  inspire the attendees to go home and write with courage and tenderness. When I finished my talk, there was a moment of complete silence, and the audience rose and gave me a standing ovation, after which they lined up and bought every available copy of my book. Apparently I was successful. 😉

By the time I left Austin and headed west, I was both wired and exhausted. Once the highway carried me out of town, up onto the limestone hills of the Edwards Plateau, and past the first few exurbs, the traffic thinned out and I could enjoy the wildflowers, a legacy of Lady Bird Johnson and her passion for beautifying Texas’ highway corridors with the state’s own native wildflowers. If you’ve not been to central Texas in late March or early April, go. You won’t regret it!

I was headed to Bandera, south of Kerrville, for dinner with Dave and Jan Lee (if you don’t know Dave’s poetry, start with News from Down to the Cafe–you’ll laugh until you cry, and you’ll recognize the people he writes about, and view them with more compassion once you’ve seen their lives through his eyes). I didn’t have time to dawdle, so I resisted stopping to shoot the masses of wildflowers along the highway–until I took a wrong turn in Johnson City and came face to face with these paintbrush. I had to stop.

Texas indian paintbrush in Johnson City

I had gotten back into my car when a Johnson City police car drew alongside me. Uh oh. I powered down my window.

“Is everything okay, Ma’am?” asked the officer politely.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “I just couldn’t resist stopping to take a picture of the paintbrush.”

“We get a lot of that this time of year, Ma’am,” he said with a grin. “You have a nice day, hear?”

I was grinning too as I drove on, the wildflowers like a brilliant tapestry along the road. And the butterflies in sulfur yellow, dusky white, orange and brown with purple “eyes” flocking to the flowers in fluttering clouds–and hitting my windshield in iridescent smears. There was no way to avoid hitting them. By the time I reached Bandera that evening, I felt (and my car looked) like a butterfly mass murderer.

Still, I had a great dinner with Dave and Jan at their house tucked in the shade of oak trees with new green leaves, and then drove on through hazy twilight over hills covered with shimmering oaks, across streams lined with fat bald cypress trees fringed with spring green needles, past herds of whitetail deer no larger than Great Danes, their luminous eyes gleaming in the twilight.

Texas blue sage in Tierra Linda, an apt name indeed

I spent the next two nights with friends who live northwest of Kerrville, exploring Chris and Ron’s place on a bluff above a Hill Country stream slipping smoothly over limestone ledges. Chris and I went for a walk down the stream through grasslands tinted blue by dusky sage and yellow with cowpen daisy. We found pink phlox hanging from limestone ledges, saw a Vermillion flycatcher hovering high overhead singing its buzzy mating song and summer tanagers chasing each other though chinkapin oaks green with new leaves….

When it was time to head on west, I was sorry to leave. But it was time to head home. I made the run across West Texas to Southern New Mexico–550 miles of wide open country, from Hill Country green to desert with lizard-spine sharp mountain ranges, in one long day.

Harold and Barbara’s claret cup cactus, blooming exuberantly despite the dry spring

I stayed two nights here in Las Cruces, welcomed by more dear friends (thank you, Barbara and Harold), visiting with Denise Chavez at the Mesilla Cultural Center and hearing about the exciting events at this weekend’s Border Book Festival (Denise and I co-founded the festival 17 years ago), and seeing other friends from the years Richard and I lived here.

In a few minutes, I’ll speak to my friend Pam Porter’s classes and then hit the road headed north, on my way home at last. My Subaru odometer turned 80,000 miles just before I got to Austin and before I get home it’ll tick off another thousand. It’s been a long trip, but a rich one, the days of people and talk alternating with long stretches of silence. Many of the roads I’ve driven are ones Richard and I shared. Sometimes I’ve felt very alone, sometimes Richard’s spirit feels near.

Throughout it all, I’ve felt a lot of love from all of you who walk this journey with me. Thank you–your company helps more than mere words can express.