She was not alone for today’s journey that would partially cover those stretches of Texas highway one sought in order to avoid the frustrations and, some times, horrors of I-35 traffic. Although, there was no reason not to attempt I-35 today as it was not a holiday and no major college football games were being played that would turn the major corridor of Texas traffic into a death trap for those intent on driving beyond reason or those who were perhaps just out of luck. In fact, today was not even a weekend. It was what should have been another typical Monday morning. They chose the route for a more scenic option and for, most accurately, a more sentimental reason. She was to be a passenger today so she knew she would be able to absorb the scenes and familiar sights, uninhibited, while the oblivious world around her was not concerned or anxious and did not recognize the implications of such a trip or the importance of why it was to be made.
Starting from a slightly different location, farther to the east than was typical of past trips, they soon approached and adjoined her favorite expanses of blacktop that kept countless fond memories and inspired so many emotions and thoughts. In Lampasas they merged onto Highway 281 and so began the connectivity of all those small towns, many of which possessed names that people had a strong likelihood of mispronouncing if they weren’t from around those parts. It was a compilation of roads that flowed through the heart of the Texas Hill Country like one of its own rivers; not too loud or boisterous like the Colorado or the Brazos but calmer and slower like the Pecos, Bosque, or Leon. She always likened herself to a river- a Texas river. While some people consider themselves beach people or mountain folks, she knew if her spirit was to take a more literal earthly form she would have been a river. Her life's path had been less than linear and was relentlessly changing course.
Reaching one town she would immediately recall which one was to come next while driving through the current, looking for, and finding each of the normal landmarks encountered in years past. All the usual suspects were there. The cafes still served the same pies with mile-high meringue. The churches, rooted and devout in the sun, still wanted for the shade found over the adjacent graveyards with the small, weathered markers and plastic wreathes with red flowers faded pink over time. The old men wearing belted Wrangler’s and boots, collared shirts, and old vinyl ball caps, who spoke only when needed, were found as expected- sitting on the benches outside of the smoke-filled filling stations. They always reminded her of the Farmer's Almanac, the smell of stale tobacco, and manners long ago neglected by most. At times she envied them because she imagined their lifestyle was mostly consumed with the present need of producing what was needed to subsist today. Therefore, they had little time to contemplate the inadequacies of their lives but could enjoy living in the now, rather than always wanting for something more or better. The antique stores still attempted to peddle wares that had been there for ages. One aspect of these towns that rang most special to her was their structure and layout- all oriented around the town square so that one would drive right past the courthouse (most were county seats); dating the towns and reminding one of a time when justice was more prominently on display. With the onset of winter and the Christmas holiday, these courthouses would be elaborately decorated with strands of crystal white lights and shiny red and green garlands. The streetlights throughout town would be decorated as well so that if one drove through at night, it was if you were passing under and elaborate promenade of tinsel and light. For her, those trips became most special when they happened to reach some of the towns further south at night and they would be transformed into small vignettes that could be peered into, much like the quaint village figurines and displays individuals collect and display in their own homes during the holidays.
It had proven to be quite a beautiful fall day and in between cities and towns, the landscape varied from pleasant to breath taking as they traveled further north. The colors had begun to change and the oranges and shocking reds blazing on the flame leaf sumac and red oaks were stunning. This was the first week in November and fall had just hit Texas, yet another reminder of how the state seemed to take its time with almost everything it did- completely unprogressive and unconcerned with the trends around it. Even the King Ranch bluestem had turned a to a deep purple/mauve at its seed head, and cast the surrounding fields with a dark tint. She had a shade of eye shadow in that exact purple hue. As the cars ahead speed past, the grass stands growing adjacent to the shoulder of the road protested against the force of the air in a perfect rolling wave- the purple seed heads reaching towards the ground and flashing a bit of straw colored stem before snapping upright again in an undulating motion.
They passed various fixtures typical to a rural backdrop that hinted to a lifestyle almost forgotten: houses with screened-in wrap-around porches, an old truck on cinder blocks without its wheels, a hand-placed stone fence of unquestionable age bisecting a pasture. She smiled when they reached the house completely surrounded by a dike that could not be missed, and one could not wonder what neurosis had inspired such an undertaking. In addition to the earthen barrier surrounding the house, was a series of American flags across the property. This had to be the surest bastion of American patriotism, and by the looks of the earthen barrier around the house, the inhabitants were ready to uphold that status come hell or high water. North of Hamilton, they had to break quickly as four deer leaped the fence to the right and crossed the road in front of them before another leap easily and gracefully carried them across the fence on their left. It was odd to see them so active at the noon hour, but from the number of dead deer they had encountered, remnants from last night’s collisions, she thought they must really be on the move with the cooler weather and the subliminal changes in behavior that the waning daylight brought about in the species this time of year. Last night had not been a good night for the deer.
She mused that it had always been the deer that had brought them up and down these roads, for what seemed must have been a thousand times before, as well as she knew them. Each trip had taken place before she was yet old enough to drive, at least a portion of that 8-hour trip from the Metroplex to a remote portion of South Texas brush country where they spent weekends and a few remaining days of holiday breaks during hunting season on a highly coveted hunting lease. Land so rough and hardscrabble that most would consider it desolate despite the variety and abundance of life that flourished there. They spent hours on those roads covering the distance between two places so distinctly disparate they almost seemed to be alternate experiences in space and time. She loved every minute spent on the road with him. She would spend her time in the back seat, pretending not to be paying attention while listening to him as he talked to the other companions in the car- the adults telling stories and jokes. Some times he would earnestly break into song or start humming a favorite tune with great fervor, but mostly for amusement's sake, and she would just laugh. As much as she loved the time spent in that south Texas landscape, early steps in the development of her appreciation for natural systems and land stewardship, she most treasured the time spent in the car on those roads. The endless possibilities of new places and people one might chance upon, with a host of new stories and adventures created a sense of wonder in her and created a longing to find new routes to wander.
Small towns were different than what she knew. Each time she traveled these roads she wondered what it might be like to have grown up in one. A place where most folks knew one another just as well as they knew where the sidewalks in town would lead. What impact would such an upbringing have made on her life? More often than not she considered her upbringing and exposure to diversity a blessing, but had the availability of luxuries of urban life made her complacent? Would a longing for more, experienced in a town that had little to offer (at least on the surface), driven her to achieve more in her life? Would she have fought harder to reach her goals the first go-around if she had grown up with an ache for a life outside of a small town?
The thoughts played round and round while they continued to travel north. Soon, they began to notice more cars on the road and traffic increased. Around Granbury it became an annoyance and she realized with a start that what she was feeling was not disgruntlement for the traffic but for that gnawing concern in the pit of the stomach. She kept telling herself it was not necessary as everything would work out as it should, statistically speaking, but she couldn't ignore the queasy anticipation anymore. It had begun about a month before when she received the news. He had not acted concerned at the time, and still did not, but delivered what was to happen in a simple email with little detail: a surgery, a time, and a place. It would all work out fine, he reassured. She took the news in stride, but now, as they approached their destination and knew she would be seeing him soon, maybe for the last time, she couldn't stop the worry and the thoughts just came forth…
At dawn tomorrow they will shave your chest, put you to sleep, and open up your torso. They will keep you alive for those few precious hours with artificial life offered up from computers and machines and, potentially, others’ blood. They will cut out that small piece of your heart that has never worked correctly but they say now has reached a point of inefficiency it can no longer meet the demands of your body and sustain your life. Then, they will replace it with a foreign object, make repairs, stitch you up, and wait as you wake from slumber. And I’m so scared. Not at the thought of what is to happen, the procedure itself, but what I have come to realize life would be like without you. You are my guiding light; I would be utterly lost without you. You, who taught me how to appreciate, how to dream, how to be proud, how to take life, how to respect life, how one person can love more than I thought would ever be possible by loving others more than themselves. Where would I turn for the advice and comfort that only a father can render at 2 am in the morning when things have fallen apart and his little girl is in trouble? You were not always so good at it though, and in awkward times didn’t always know how to talk to us. You learned, however, and the comfort you bring has meant so much to us. And all of this time of knowing what was coming, you have been the strongest. You have remained calm and not once shown a single sign of worry, because you put us three before yourself. You have unselfishly kept us safe.
A couple of tears fell as they pulled into the subdivision she remembered but had grown so big. She hoped her sister didn’t notice and didn’t think she had because of the sunglasses that covered her face. Knowing what tomorrow could bring, she’s had her moment of weakness and then hardened. Tomorrow the roles would change- he would be rendered weak and they would be strong for him.