When we lived in our little white rented house a few miles north of the big river there were two bushes that grew in a corner of the back yard. They struggled because an old cottonwood and two orange trees took most of the sun and when the slanted rain came in off of the gulf the water mostly missed the roots of those scrawny bushes. We were living in the tropics, though, and all of the plants were expected to bloom but I did not anticipate roses in October.
What kind of place was this where we were living that roses bloomed in October? In the morning, the little red-haired girl cranked a window open over the sink and snatched fresh oranges from a bended branch and squeezed them into a glass for me. In Michigan, where we were raised, the first snows were flying and the trees had gone bare but we were living beneath palm and fruit trees and wondering if there might ever be clouds.
Rio Grande Valley
I had fallen in love with Texas by reading about cowboys and cattle drives in children’s books. I thought the most about the west when the weather was the coldest and the days were the shortest in Michigan and I wondered if there truly were places where the land and the sky were as frightening as they were inspiring. My father believed in this even though he had never seen any evidence beyond the television.
Daddy always seemed to be able to find a western movie on our second-hand Zenith when he got home from the factory and he lay on the couch in silent marvel as Randolph Scott and Glenn Ford rode through Monument Valley in Southern Utah. When the picture began to flicker and roll he gave me instructions to slap the big box on the side in hopes that it would lock in the horizontal hold.
“Look at that, buddy boy,” he said. “They got them table-topped mesas out yonder. I’m gonna go see some of that country some day.”
My father was the archetype of the soul born too late and ought to have been riding west with his dreams in an earlier century. While working on an assembly line and lifting bumpers to be attached to cars he was unable to afford Daddy spoke of horses with a familiarity that made it sound like he had checked on the remuda before he had punched a time clock.
“I had the prettiest Appaloosa you ever did see when I was a boy in Mississippi,” he told me. “I don’t even remember how many hands high she was but she stood as tall as any healthy stallion in the county.”
There was a kind of inevitability and some destiny involved when I bought a Honda 450 motorcycle and went westward after high school. The bike was too small for the open road but my impatience overcame any mechanical failings and in a few nights I was sleeping in a tent along the Big Thompson River in Rocky Mountain National Park.
A few days later I rode down the Front Range against a quartering wind and the little motor wailed until I crossed the cap rock into the South Plains of Texas. The green rows of the dry land cotton wheeled past my periphery and then the giant center pivots rose up and sprayed rainbows of nitrate and water across the bolls. In a few decades I was to return with a camera crew and prepare reports on the falling depth of the Ogallala Aquifer and the great retreat of water.
Because I was eager to get further south I rode up to the edge of Palo Duro Canyon and looked down over the precipice without riding to the bottom. There were glories in the rock and the wind and things easy to feel but hard to see. I hurried away down through the Big Country toward Marathon and the Big Bend and slept off the side of the road and when the sun rose I understood why they called the nearby range the Glass Mountains. The road rolled out across the bottom of an ancient sea that had been turned by time into a great desert, which lifted up to the alpine coolness of the Chisos Basin. More than a thousand feet below me later that day on the South Rim the Rio Grande made an arc back toward the northeast before resuming a languorous flow to Boca Chica Beach and Brownsville.
Wild Rose Pass, Davis Mountains
When I left I pushed my coughing motorcycle over the Davis Mountains past the old Buffalo Solider outpost in Fort Davis and imagined the remote and unfair lives that had been lived in that box canyon. At the top of Wild Rose Pass I saw the Permian Basin spilling toward the horizon and in a few hours I was riding through a forest of pump jacks that appeared to be giant insects gnawing at the desert floor. Before nightfall, I had made the hill country and thought that I might not ever understand the complexities of Texas and after I had spent a few days in Austin I knew there was no point in trying. There was music being made behind almost every door.
These memories were with me in a phone booth along a toll road outside of Chicago one November in 1975. Snow was above my knees and I was hardly able to see the lights on the building twenty feet distant because the blizzard was not weakening. Above the wind I heard the little red-haired girl say on the other line that a man had called from a radio station in a place named McAllen, Texas and he had a job for me.
“He said it’s 80 degrees and sunny and he has a cottage in an orange grove he can rent us,” she told me.
“Call him back and tell him I accept and we’ll be there as soon as the snow stops.”
I did not know where McAllen was and I did not know the man’s name or how much he was willing to pay but I knew we were going to live in Texas. We set out blindly for the border with our compact Opel Kadett station wagon loaded with modest belongings and our optimism. When we were finally able to afford the little white rented house for $230 a month we were convinced we had no further needs. Even when we moved to Laredo to live in a trailer on a ranch and work in television we believed we were on an adventure in Texas. The river was visible from our back door and some times the immigrants stopped for water with their clothes wet and their children crying and we gave them what we could before they walked back north into the desert, keeping their distance from the highway.
In the years that have followed I have not yet found a reason to leave. I have now seen all of Texas and I know what fall looks like at Lost Maples and in McKittrick Canyon of the Guadalupe Mountains and I’ve been mystified by the petroglyphs at Hueco Tanks. My work as a journalist seemed to have placed me in every small town under the Lone Star. I’ve stood on the national seashore and watched as gulls landed and pointed their beaks at an approaching hurricane and I’ve seen bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes speckling the highways south of San Antonio in late January while Chicago’s ice is months from cracking. I might tell you about canoeing the upper Guadalupe for three days without seeing another human or sleeping in the Big Thicket National Forest and listening to all the live things knocking around in the night woods but I will never be able to finish describing the history and the geography that have enticed all Texas immigrants.
We are a people who are close to our state’s history and in love with its diverse geography and we have failed as much as we have succeeded but we have never stopped being interesting. I hate the prevailing politics of Texas but I believe in the power of right and fairness and that justice is an unrelenting force for change. Anger and vitriol in the public discourse continue to nudge me toward looking elsewhere for a place to live but I cannot go.
When we finally settled in the hill country the builder of our tract house put two bushes beneath the window of the master bedroom. They stayed green but never flowered through most of that first year and then when the fall came and the wind turned to the west and came across the desert those bushes gave up bright red roses to the weakened sun. I am as amazed now as I was my first autumn in Texas.
I will never leave a place that has roses in October.