Big Bend

I’m amazed that on I-10, between San Antonio and El Paso, the speed limit is eighty; which means drivers are, for the most part, setting their cruise controls at eighty-four because there’s an unsubstantiated belief that cops don’t ticket unless you’re going five or more mph above the speed limit. 

West Texas goes on forever. If you live out here, which few people do, you don’t buy groceries every week; you buy supplies once a month. The view from the car holds flat land broken by rough-hewn hills, occasional groves of huddled oaks, and graceful buzzards coasting down to rip off a bite. Wind farms perch on far horizons. What else? Cattle and oilrigs, AKA bread and butter. 

For miles and miles behind me, no other vehicles. There’s an eighteen-wheeler way up there, climbing a faraway slope. I’ll catch up and pass it in about five minutes. And then it’ll fill my mirror for a while. 

Five and a half hours and Big Bend rises like a surprise. Hazy violet peeks are juxtaposed against the painful blue of the sky. We anticipate great hikes and spectacular views.

“Volcanic,” David tells me, nodding toward the jagged horizon. 

I prepare myself. He’s a geophysicist and he’s going to be explaining rocks to me for the next few days; and I, in turn, will tell him once again about the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, an enthralling multi-generational tale in which one of the characters is a geologist. While reading it, every time I turned a page I released a satisfied Ahh. A moving tale gloriously written. At any rate, geology’s in there somewhere. 

We stay at the Chisos Lodge, the only boarding in the park. There’s a pleasant gift shop and a restaurant. We check in, unload our stuff to the room, and go to dinner. There’s room for fifty in the dining room and it currently holds only fifteen; yet there’s a half-hour wait to be seated. The reason soon becomes clear. A single person hosts, takes orders, delivers food, and busses the tables. There are complaints.

“If you don’t like it, write your congressman,” the waiter snarls. Apparently it’s an issue. 

Next morning. It’s six-point-six miles to and from The Window, the most popular hike in the park. Its pictures are in all the pamphlets and guidebooks. It’s an easy walk, unexpectedly not crowded. The last quarter mile, however, is more for mountain goats than people. Some are gifted when it comes to leaping from one rocking rock to another, butt-scooting across gigantic boulders, and scrambling up and down steep rock faces. Not me. A kind word might be inelegant.  

But the view is worth the effort—a creek falls to its destiny from between a tight opening between two walls; and beyond, on the other side of the valley, another fissure that perfectly mirrors our window. 

In the afternoon we drive two hours to the border, to the Santa Elena Overlook. The Rio Grande is a lethargic brown ribbon, narrow. It brings to mind the same feeling I had when I first saw the Jordon—I’d heard about it my whole life and when I was standing beside it, I thought, “This is it? This reedy trickle shaped human history?” As to the Rio Grande, I could toss a rock from one bank to the other, yet look at the prominence it holds in the lives of so many. 

Incongruously impressive, on the other side of the river a massive cliff looms—a towering straight-up barrier of gray and orange stretching as far as we can see in both directions, humbling in its size and aspect. 

“Well, there’s the wall,” I say. “Good to see it’s coming along.”

“Someone could hang glide from it.”

We gaze at it speculatively. Like ants, people get to where they want to be and there’s no obstacle that can stop them.  

At the end of the day, another mediocre meal in the dining room. No big deal. We didn’t come here for the food. 

The next morning we drive to Boquillas Crossing, where there’s a Boarder Control station. Inside the squat building a young man in uniform sits at a desk and views a computer. I suspect he’s playing Spider Solitaire. He stands, greets us, and, explaining that there’re no requirements, wishes us an enjoyable morning. He returns his attention to the screen as we exit the building and follow the shady path to the river.

A man wielding oars picks us up on the Texas side and pumps his arms against the current to get us to the Mexican side. Five dollars. We take donkeys to Boquillas, a one-road village. Five dollars. Edgar, our donkey handler, doesn’t know the names of our donkeys. The ride takes twenty minutes. The sun beats down. Flies buzz. There is no breeze and fine dust lifts from the hooves, coating us. It’s all very stinky.

When we reach the village Edgar intends to give us a tour. Five dollars. The first place he takes us is the Tourist Board, which consists of a trailer and a guy. Five dollars for arm bands. Good for four days. We can come back tomorrow. We set out.

Small homes doubling as businesses line both sides of the road. Windows are holes in the walls. Canvas flaps keep the flies out. We pass a church, a restaurant where slumped tourists sip drinks, and two schools. The high school has ten kids. Every building is a simple square constructed of cement blocks.

Edgar’s house is marked, as are all the others, by bags and T-shirts clothes-pinned to a line strung across the yard. There’s no wind so there’s no festive fluttering. His wife and two-year-old daughter rush out to greet us when they see Daddy coming. 

I buy a bag from his wife. Ten dollars. This bag is an exact replica of all the other bags dangling along the road, yet Edgar proudly insists that his wife makes the bags by hand. How can this be? If you gave me fabric and a sewing machine and instructed me to make a bag, you can be sure that it wouldn’t look like every other bag. We’ve seen this cut-and-paste craftsmanship in every poverty-stricken village we’ve been to in every corner of the world. I will never comprehend it. 

Edgar speaks affectionately of his tiny town. He’s been other places, so he’s aware of what’s possible. 

“We just got solar panels,” he says. “Now we have refrigerators, microwaves, and televisions.”

“Air conditioning?” David asks. 

Swimming around in the sweat on the back of my neck, a bug bites hard. 

“No air conditioning. But now we have cold drinks.” This gives him joy. 

We ride back to the river. David gives Edgar an additional five. We cross, return to our car, and turn the air conditioner on high as we head back to the Chisos Basin. 

“How much did we spend?” I say spend, but in fact it’s a giveaway. We’ve purchased stuff and services we didn’t need in Egypt, India, Cambodia, Thailand, Borneo, Malaysia, Kenya—well, and many more. We appreciate where we were born and what we have; and we’re acutely aware of where others live and what they don’t have. 

“Less than fifty.”

“He seemed like a smart guy.”

“No opportunities in a place like that.”

“They’re freely back and forth across the border every day.”


In the afternoon we go on another hike. In the evening we skip the dining room and have beer and nachos on the deck while we watch the clouds change from gray to pinkish orange as the sun drops behind the mountain. 

“Let’s go home tomorrow, “ David suggests, though we’re booked for another night. 

“I miss my bed,” I say, “and the sheets here are rough.”

It’s decided. We’re done. 

The view from The Window.

The view from The Window.

Spectacular views in every direction.

Spectacular views in every direction.

The bag. Want one? There are a thousand others just like it in Boquillas.

The bag. Want one? There are a thousand others just like it in Boquillas.

In Marathon, the Gage Hotel is worth a visit.

In Marathon, the Gage Hotel is worth a visit.

Hat, walking stick, Mahjong combinations, and coin bag. With me everywhere.

Hat, walking stick, Mahjong combinations, and coin bag. With me everywhere.

Last Hurrah

Mary Ann and Nonie invite us for a boat ride to close out the summer. While there’s been rain all over the area for the last several weeks, Marble Falls has remained so dry that BURN BAN warnings have been posted at the entrance to every country road. Spending an afternoon surrounded by water sounds like a lovely relief. 

They live on the Austin side of the Mansfield Dam, which is part of a chain of dams that are under the auspices of the Lower Colorado River Authority, the LCRA, which I’d never heard of before moving to this part of the world. But believe me, the LCRA is a mighty entity, controlling every aspect associated with every resource and recreational activity produced by the dams and their resulting lakes on the Lower Colorado River—parks, boating rules, safety, environmental stability, water usage, and water level; and, essential to the whole of central Texas, hydroelectric power. You don’t water your tomatoes here without LCRA approval. 

Mary Ann’s house is located on a charming street that ends in a ramp from which they drop their boat right into Lake Austin. It’s worth a mention that the houses on the cul-de-sac are mostly older homes that are slowly being replaced by new-builds. Near to the water and near to Austin, the real estate prices are exorbitant. And, seen from the river, the grand mansions with walls of windows, rolling green lawns, and commissioned art works and follies are eye-catching; but also poignant in that you look at what is and you can’t help but see what once was. There is not a square foot of space along the waterfront that isn’t vulnerable to development. 

Mary Ann is a hero of mine. She works for the Office of the Attorney General for the State of Texas, in the child support services and enforcement division. In addition to the noble way she earns her paycheck is the even more amazing fact that she has no flab or cellulite on her butt and thighs. I know this because I watch her as, in her bathing suit, she moves around the boat doing ski-prep. How can this be?  

“Mary Ann, your butt and thighs look great,” I tell her. “How is that you have no flab or cellulite?”

She looks pleased and says thanks, but Nonie is the one who gives the answer: “It’s her squats. Oh, you ought to see her get after ’em. She squats when she’s putting the dog food down, when she brushes her teeth, when she’s working in the kitchen, when she’s gardening.” 

I laugh at his word picture. Squats. Years and years of them, from the look of it. But I suspect there’s more to it than squats. Good genes, for sure. Also, I doubt she’s spent her whole adult life going up and down forty pounds in both directions. And skin stretches a lot better than it shrinks. I admire her, and I accept myself; and I let it go.  

We all enjoy being on the water, which is smooth in some places and choppy in others. The reason Mary Ann owns and maintains a boat is because she loves to ski. She proudly shows us her new slalom, demonstrating how light and balanced it is. It’s a beauty. Because she’s been skiing for so very long, she’s comfortable with the equipment, and it’s no time before she’s rising from the froth and being pulled smoothly along. 

She bumps back and forth across the wake, from far on one side of the boat to far on the other. Effortlessly graceful, confident, serene. Her beam of pure joy radiates from beyond the rope and forms a soft cloud of bliss that wafts over the whole of the blue ribbon. 

A memory comes to mind. Just like this, we used to watch my mother ski. She wasn’t athletic. Watching the woman try to throw a ball was just embarrassing. But when she got up on that slalom, she was elegant and the elegance blossomed into a delight that infused every facet of her being. Her heart became weightless, her smile was huge, and for the period of time that she was skimming across the water, she was truly, deeply happy. Buoyant, she was lifted above life’s tensions; and there were always tensions—between her and us kids, between her and Daddy, between her and her co-workers; and ultimately the tensions she held within, her feeling of never being smart or productive enough, talented or strong enough. And because of her floating light heart, we in the boat, her appendages, were also lifted up, our spirits high above all the frictions and conflicts that she unknowingly scattered like small firecrackers in all directions and at all times. Except when she was skiing.

My mother at peace. A nostalgic tear. 

Thanks, Mary Ann, for letting me watch you ski. 

Mary Ann often steers with her foot! I’m sure this must be against all boating rules!

Mary Ann often steers with her foot! I’m sure this must be against all boating rules!

We docked at Ski Shores and enjoyed a meal and some good music. I had a great bloody Mary.

We docked at Ski Shores and enjoyed a meal and some good music. I had a great bloody Mary.

Mary Ann on her new slalom. The picture doesn’t do justice.

Mary Ann on her new slalom. The picture doesn’t do justice.

We just had our thirty-fifth anniversary. Yay us!

We just had our thirty-fifth anniversary. Yay us!

Tricky Communications

I call Kala to invite her and her husband for Thanksgiving. It’s just a formality. They come to us every year. But apparently not.

“Nice to be asked,” she says, “but we made plans with Edgar’s family up in Amarillo this year.”

I let David know.

“That leaves room for another couple at the table,” I tell him. “Whom shall we invite?” (I don’t actually say whom shall because it’s pretentious in a casual setting and I’m not the dowager countess of Downton Abbey; but the computer won’t leave me alone about it, so there it is, messing with my style.)

“How about Sally and Jerry?” he suggests. 

Sally and Jerry are Kala and Edgar’s neighbors. The couples are close. They take cruises together. We don’t know them that well, but if Kala and Edgar are leaving town, Sally and Jerry might be feeling lonely, especially since their daughter lives overseas. 

So I email Sally with an invitation. Her reply is vexing. 

“How thoughtful of you to think of us,” she writes. “But we’re going to spend the day with Kala and Edgar.”

The deceit intended to spare my feelings has had the opposite result. I wouldn’t have minded if Kala had simply said that they wanted to spend Thanksgiving with someone else. And now I’m lying to myself. Of course I would have minded. I would have run it through my head over and over, questioning whether they’d ever liked us, disbelieving their laughter and suspecting their sincerity, not even trusting that they were who I thought they were. Which is what I’m doing anyway, so the lie served no purpose. 

David doesn’t seem bothered by it. I ask him why.

“We have four other people coming, and we have plenty of friends who’ll be happy to fill our two remaining seats.”

This is true, but it isn’t the point. 

Considering the scope of human suffering, my angst due to the minor social fabrication is a mite in a moth’s ear. That Kala felt the need to make up an excuse shows that the last thing she wanted to do was cause me pain. And yet she did. 

The logical thing to do is turn the situation around. How would I have handled it if I’d been her? I wouldn’t have lied, I know that much; not because I’m so deeply dedicated to the truth, but because a lie has never slipped from my lips that hasn’t been found out. In the same way, I’ve never been mean-spirited or passed gossip without it coming back to sting me. 

So, I wouldn’t lie. Instead, I would decline the invitation in a thoughtful way. 

“Thanks for asking,” I would say. “But you know how busy David is, so we’ve decided to make it a quiet day.”

Standing behind the solid wall of David’s volunteerism is one of my tactics. Master Gardeners, church vestry, Habitat for Humanity; and he doesn’t just show up now and then to dig a hole or swing a hammer. He puts in hours of labor every day in addition to being on the boards. His involvement in good works covers all sorts of slothfulness on my part. Oh dear. Is this a form of duplicity? I fear it is! Like the stars, my infractions are too numerous to count.

Back to awkward situations, interaction, and hurt feelings: I admit that, inadvertently and in trying to be amusing when I’m not, I hurt others’ feelings on pretty much a daily basis. The only way I can avoid it is to never go anywhere and never speak. 

On the other hand, it seems that, in the name of being liked and presenting the world with a kind heart, we’re all so careful with one another that every instruction or diverse preference is couched and delivered so tactfully that often communication is blurred and progress is reversed. Rather than ideas and opinions being clearly stated, they’re packed in clouds, placed gently on calm seas, and set afloat in the hope that someone will see through the fluffiness. If you doubt this exaggerated sensitivity you need to come to our church when the congregation is decorating the Christmas tree. The sugary agreeability is so prevalent that gumdrops form in the air. 

It’s all very frustrating to a forthright woman with a sharp tongue.

David and the hummingbirds really like this firecracker plant.

David and the hummingbirds really like this firecracker plant.

Just another view of our back deck. David has a green thumb.

Just another view of our back deck. David has a green thumb.

The ginger goes crazy every year. It’s been in the local gardening magazine!

The ginger goes crazy every year. It’s been in the local gardening magazine!

Yay! A Book Club!

Everything a person or a society believes is shaped by the written word, yet there are people who don’t read. When one of these nonreaders hears that I’m a writer, they’re happy to let me know their truth. 

“I don’t read,” a person will tell me, the declaration delivered proudly and defiantly, as though I’m their pejorative seventh grade English teacher. 

“A lot of people don’t,” I say agreeably, though inside I’m appalled. 

If you don’t read, how do you write? How do you bring anything but ignorance to any discussion? How do you communicate if you have no vocabulary? Where do you obtain your concepts about human behavior, right and wrong, the world we live in? 

Some, upon finding that I prefer to read and write fiction, take on a superior tone when they tell me they’re only interested in nonfiction. I’m fine with that. Absorbing words and ideas, some concurrent with one’s beliefs, some contradictory, is what implements change, promotes broad-mindedness, and drives healthy relationships. Though in defense of fiction, I will point out that there are millions of situations presented in stories that a person will never confront. It’s through fiction that empathy comes to nestle in a person’s soul.  

I’m frequently invited to give talks about creativity and the mechanics of writing at libraries and to readers’ groups; and one of the questions I’m most often asked is, how can a parent get their kids interested in reading? This what I say:

“You tuck your babies close every day, and you read them a story. You point to the words on the page so your little ones will connect the dark lines and shapes with the sounds coming out of your mouth. You make it a love thing, not a struggle thing.” 

This is so idealized that it’s embarrassing. It’s what I did with my kids and, as adults, they’re both voracious readers. But during their period of development we were in an ex-pat situation where mommies stayed home and did nothing but nurture their children. In the real world mothers and fathers are out in the world working hard. They’re tired and they’re preoccupied. Where’s the time? Though I will posit that if you’re a parent who doesn’t read, your kids, also, will likely not be readers. 

I was raised in a reading household. My mother folded a trip to the library into our Saturday errands. For my whole childhood and into my teens, the family teased me because I kept an ongoing book on every surface in the house—the kitchen table, my nightstand, the couch, the piano. Wherever I found myself, there a book would be, waiting for me. 

When Fifty Shades of Gray came out a friend from my readers’ group in Singapore was shocked when she discovered that her thirteen-year-old daughter’s friends were passing a copy around, sneak-reading it. She, of course, would never allow her daughter to read such trash. (And my-my, it was trashy, so poorly written that I put it down after the first ten pages. But oh, how I do envy that subpar hack her publicist!)

But really, censorship? My mother would never have thought to tell me what I could or couldn’t read; though allowing me to read Sweet Savage Love at thirteen probably wasn’t the wisest way to go. Nothing plants fallacy in a teenaged girl’s head like abduction and sex on the high seas. Was it rape or was it seduction? Did she love him or did she hate him? How was I to know? After SSL our girl trips to the library were for the purpose of fetching potboilers with covers so risqué that my sister made us fabric book covers so we could carry them in public. Thanks, Resi. I have mine still!

And as I am inclined to do, I got off my intended topic, which is readers’ groups or, as they’re also called, book clubs. Everywhere we’ve lived I’ve joined a group that sits in a circle once a month and discusses a book. The chosen books have always been a mixture of classic and current. In most cases, a participant who has read it and thinks it will lead to a lively discussion suggests the book. 

To those who are indifferent to reading this sounds tedious. To people who love to read, talking about words and nuance, plots and social relevance is the most fun pastime in the world. 

I have yet to join a group in Marble Falls. There are several home groups in the area. I know many who belong to them; and though I’ve hinted that I’m looking for a readers’ group, I haven’t been invited to join. My feelings are kind of hurt by this, but I know myself well enough to realize that I can be annoying. 

Two groups meet at the library, one for classics that meets at an inconvenient time, and another for mysteries, which is meeting this afternoon. I’ll be going to this one. The selected book, She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper, is an Edgar Award Winner for Best Debut Novel for 2018, an impressive achievement. 

A brief review: The book opened with a prologue so wildly literary that it was as though James Joyce and Virginia Woolf decided to collaborate on a thriller. This would have worked had the author possessed the stamina to carry the style throughout, but the first chapter takes a dip into the clear modern narrative of a page-turner, rendering the prologue pretentious and inexplicable. After this baffling start, however, the book is an easy read; the characters are well defined, and the story is compelling. The multiple typos and overuse of certain words were a distraction, but most aren’t as persnickety as I am. So if you like a fast-paced book, you might enjoy this. 

And the many small errors served to prove what I already suspected, which is that the art of editing isn’t as valued in the US as it is in the UK; and for this I’m thankful to my British publishers who hired my British editors to help make my books as tight and clean as possible. Attention authors: In writing for the American market a writer must be dogged and meticulous when it comes to editing because no one’s going to do it for you, and no one will ever care about your work as much as you do.

So. A book club that reads only mysteries and thrillers. Here I go.

I thought this statue on Main Street was appropriate.

I thought this statue on Main Street was appropriate.

I was gratified to see my book arranged on the library shelf in prime viewing position.

I was gratified to see my book arranged on the library shelf in prime viewing position.