I like to travel, though it’s increasingly expensive–and exasperating, especially at airports. My husband and I recently flew from Portland to Austin via Denver on Frontier Airlines, the planes with cute wild animals on the tails. I don’t know what the animals symbolize, but each plane displays a different one. We flew a polar bear.
Apart from the Rockies–always spectacular–and the odd architecture of Denver airport, my slantwise view of Colorado caught the very straight roads and very square fields, which led me to historical musing, easy to do from the middle seat. What would this nation look like if nineteenth century surveyors hadn’t cut the whole country into a vast grid? The mountains would be the same, but not the land around them. Even the lakes and rivers have been altered by human intervention, sometimes spectacularly, sometimes subtly. All I know is that in Denver the grass at the airport was already tan, whereas Portland is still green.
My friend Sarah met us at Austin airport, and we hugged and laughed and chatted for awhile, but I was still in historical mode. How wonderful it is that close friendships can continue even when friends move away. Until WWII, Irish families used to hold an “American wake” when family members immigrated, because they’d never see each other again. My brothers are now scattered from Mexico to Florida to Washington, my sister lives in Colorado, my nephew Todd lives in Norway, and my nephew Charlie is in Afghanistan, bless his heart. We can still talk, and so far we can still visit some of them, but how long will that amazing freedom last? My husband’s nieces post daily photos and comments on Facebook, and so does my son, but virtual visits lack the splendid detail of a real face-to-face.
So what did I notice in Texas? How pretty it is in the hill country, now the drought is easing. April is wildflower time–not just bluebonnets, but Indian blankets, sneeze weed (fine yellow flowers despite the name), prickly poppies (tall stalks with delicate white blossoms), wine cups, mustard, Indian paint brush, Missouri primroses, and some early prickly pear blooms. Lady Bird Johnson did a lot to ensure the survival of that splendid array of spring flowers, and the hill country is Johnson territory.
Sarah’s house is near Burnet on Lake Buchanan, which went down considerably because of the drought. Elaborate boat ramps stick out over fields of flowers instead of over water. There are frustrated fishermen. Indian sites which had been inundated were exposed along the banks of the river that was dammed to form the lake, and it’s fairly easy to find chipped flints and even hand tools lying there quietly where they fell. The lake is on the immigration route for birds and butterflies. We got to admire both the permanent residents and some of the visitors. The buzzards, strangely enough, were particularly graceful, and it was lovely to wake up to bird call every morning (though not to buzzard call). Sarah has a resident blue heron.
Where Sarah lives the dirt is reddish. Elsewhere, near Marble Falls, it fades to the gray of granite, and huge batholiths, exposed caps of granite, dot the landscape. When I was writing my first novel, I could not get it going until I knew the color of the dirt in my chosen setting. That involved a trip to Hampshire and Devon. (Gray and chalky in places, in the first instance, and red along the coast of Devon with exposed fossils and seams of blue clay.) I got three novels from all that dirt, though I “had to” take another trip for the last of the regencies. Of course, I saw other things too. Like people.
This Texas trip brought me in contact with a lively audience of about forty at the Burnet County Public Library, where I did a talk on “Latouche County,” a.k.a. the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. They were very kind and cordial, and their questions showed they were sharper than tacks. They even bought books. I also met with Sarah’s book club–terrific women, and the meeting was held at a farm with a handsome herd of goats. A couple of days later we visited Fredericksburg, once a colony of German settlers. It was also the birthplace of Admiral Nimitz, among the few people who could control Douglas MacArthur. My father served under Nimitz, so I bought my brother Al the most recent biography. (Al was a Navy captain and is a history buff.) Then we hopped in the van and got lost looking for Luckenbach. No highway signs, probably because there was no highway. However, we finally found the place and caught the tag-end of a boozy outdoor country-music concert. For some reason, they were also playing chicken s–t bingo. The winner was whoever had the number a chicken pooped on. It was funny at the time. At Austin airport there were T-shirts inscribed Keep Austin Weird. No problem doing that with Luckenbach.
One thing traveling always does for me as a writer is to invigorate language. That’s partly a matter of listening to local speech. You sit down in the evening to eat supper in Texas. And somebody called someone on a sale. That turned out to be a cell phone. Traveling has a more fundamental effect on language than pronunciation and vocabulary differences. It stretches the meaning of words. River, for instance, and tree. When I hear river I think of the Columbia because I see it every day, and I was terribly disappointed the first time I saw the Seine. On this trip, I had to stretch the definition of river to include the Pedernales, although it’s a pretty stream or crick (my pronunciation) or rivulet.
The trees (juniper and live oak mainly) are thick on the ground in the hill country of Texas, but the oaks are dying off. Around here, of course, we have what I was surprised to know is a rainforest, though obviously not tropical–all the conifers you can name with just enough native deciduous trees to make autumn interesting. And two major national forests. I don’t think I could live very long where there are no trees. For me, though, the biggest stretch on this word trip was hill. It’s called the hill country. So where are they? I saw some bumps in the flatness.
My husband’s grandmother, who was raised in Nebraska and eastern Colorado, felt cramped and oppressed by our mountains when she moved west as a young woman (part of the way by covered wagon). I once trailed a bunch of students from the Pacific Northwest through England with a tour guide who took us to the Cotswolds, leapt from the coach, gathered the students around her, and announced that when she was there she felt as if she were on top of the world. They laughed. She was offended, but they didn’t mean the Cotswolds weren’t pretty. They are, not to mention historical and picturesque. But they aren’t mountains to someone who wakes up to Mount Hood or Mount Saint Helens, and they’re surely not the top of anything. Snowden, I grudgingly admit, is a mountain. It’s said that the Inuit have forty words for snow. Maybe English needs forty words for mountain.
Travel is good for writers for a lot of reasons, but shaking up the language may be the most important benefit, and when you come home you notice where you are. I think I see a river.