Our final push into Austin was a dash through the heart of Comanche Country, a trip that only a few sleeps ago would have invited certain death. The Comanche, “Lords of the Southern Plains”, were not an outfit to be trifled with, given that they ran the Apaches–no slouches–out of what became Texas, turned the mighty Kiowa into a vassal tribe, raided deep into Mexico for slaves, and were fierce enough, fighting from horseback, to forestall settlement and development of Texas by nearly 100 years. They were among the first to acquire horses from the Spanish, practiced animal husbandry, and were able to send raiding parties on 400 mile paths of destruction in country without much water. The first whites who broke out of the trees in east Texas, and onto the southern Plains, encountered Indians who fought from horseback–a new development. And they fought hard for what had been theirs for hundreds of years. This was a new and startling turn for westbound settlers, who were accustomed to the tactical advantages provided by the horse, and natives who went about on foot. Ultimately, the ferocity of the Comanches led to the creation of the Texas Rangers, the rapid development of better firearms, and a legitimate respect, if not fear, for the power of the Comanche Nation. And of course it ended when Quanah Parker, son of Cynthia Ann, who had been captured as a young girl and raised as a Comanche, finally brought the last haggard bands into civilization. Quanah, who went on to considerable success and celebrity, deserves his rightful place in the pantheon of true American heroes, and if we are to nurture any healthy suspicion of mindless government in our children, or promote models of selfless leadership in difficult times, we should include studies of Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and many others, in any core curriculum. But that’s just me.
As we drove through that hard mesquite and cactus country, full of rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, scorpions and biting flies, certainly much overgrown since the Comanches roamed it and vast herds of bison kept it down, I tried to think the land back again, to imagine a line of horseback, pissed-off, and painted Comanches watching us from a ridge line. It’s a hard exercise, and one that demands a kind of stillness, which was not a luxury we were provided on this trip. But even without that stillness, it was fun to look out across the hill country and imagine the way things might have been once, to pay some measure of respect to the Comanches who had it, and to those early Texans who fought to make it their own.
Eastbound then. Through Mason, Texas, and on, still deeper into the hill country where it was hunting season, past enormous ranches completely encircled by eight foot deer fences, where hunters tore off the highway and off through magnificent gates, hauling four wheelers and side-by-sides. It is a different kind of hunting in that country, where hunters talk about “leases”, old ground they’ve paid to hunt on for generations, and where I assume the herds are managed privately. And judging by the number of road-killed deer between Eden, Texas, and Austin, the deer population is doing quite well.
And finally the outskirts of Austin. Modern American cities, it seems to me, while certainly unique in specific aspects, are remarkable now largely for their homogeneity. This will have proud defenders of municipal identity up in arms, I’m certain, but from where I’m sitting, the suburbs of Austin don’t look any different than the suburbs of Chico, California. It seems that what distinguishes large cities these days, more than anything else, is weather and politics. And in that sense, Austin, which shares a logo and certain identity traits with Portland, Oregon–“Keep Austin Weird”–is winning in the weather department. We came into Austin from the northwest, skirting the edge of Lake Travis, and navigated our way along the stop and go traffic of the Bee Cave Parkway until we arrived–after crossing, I might add, a road known as Comanche Trail, which begged a few historical questions–and finally into my sister’s driveway in upscale Austin, where her dog Russell greeted us and, to his credit, didn’t bark at the calamity of our rented van.
My sister has four kids, and hosts recovering heart patients from places like Mongolia, so Wendy and I were lucky to find ourselves put up in the Fibrillation Suite which, in all seriousness, was a terrific room in a lovely home. And it was here, in my sister’s home, with her four amazing children, her husband Peter, and my mom–who had done the smart thing and flown to Austin–that we were able to shake off 1962 miles of road dust, put up our feet, and think about being thankful. Almost. My sister is also a strong believer in itineraries, and the weighing dread in the back of my mind was the knowledge that on Thursday morning, against my will, against the various complaints of a body with no shortage of painful miles on it, we would be running the five mile Austin Turkey Trot.
But first on the itinerary was a fantastic viewing of National Geographic’s Jerusalem, my first 3-D movie experience, in the Bob Bullock I-Max in downtown Austin. And we were able to tour the Texas History museum, where archaeologists and restoration experts are rebuilding, in public view, La Belle, which sunk in Matagorda Bay, in 1686. Over one million artifacts, many of which are also on display (including weird things like rat skeletons) were recovered from the shipwreck, and we spent a glorious several hours touring the museum. After the museum, we took a quick stab around the edge of the University of Texas, within range of the shooter’s tower, where my brother-in-law nearly ran over a jaywalking bum–also, notably, a bum of certain big city bum-homogeneity, up to and including the magnificent hair–who smiled a crazy bum smile as he continued across the street giving us the middle finger. (Also, quickly, I have a good friend who has developed, after years of close study, a theory of bum-tectonics, which is that earthquakes may actually be predictable by noting the larger migration of bums within municipalities. But that is another story.)
And how does the rest of this go? You already know. Football in the back yard, where the three dogs made up their own team and specialized in illegal tactics like clipping, blocking in the back, and piling on. X-box, gun handling, and night vision lessons in the pantry with my nephew–my dear mum who wrestled, and lost, her first round with the pumpkin pie, but who managed a fantastic comeback victory in the second round. Kids shrieking. Kids, and adults, getting in trouble for throwing the football in the house, snarky commentary about various historical family dramas while both the Cowboys and Longhorns were pummeled on television, a 5 mile run through downtown Austin which, I am proud to say, Wendy and I finished in an hour, without the need for medical intervention. A ham with the best bourbon glaze I have ever tasted. A chance to read quietly in the Fibrillation Suite, while the kids were–did I mention this already?–shrieking. And finally, the turkey dinner at a historical family table my sister rescued heroically from ignominy. And it was those moments that made 4000 miles of round trip driving, through blizzards and haboobs, through shady tweaker haven truckstops and seedy motels, through cotton country larger than the island of England, worth every mile. We can never get these moments back, can we? And there may come a day, when we are wedged into a corner of the Happy Acres day room, drooling in our own laps, surviving on a thin diet of blanched memories, when we would give anything we have for just one more Thanksgiving with our families.