June 13, 2005

Highway 16 Revisited

The test of how much you like a place is to revisit it after a short time and see if its charms survive. I took the kids back to the Kerrville Folk Festival this weekend, my wife being at a conference in Washington DC. Two main reasons to return: to have a chance to camp overnight, which we hadn’t done last week, and more importantly to continue a philosophical conversation with my friend Randy that demanded something more than email.

When did this visit’s disenchantments begin? Maybe it was the discovery that our intended campsite had been taken by strangers the night before our arrival, so that we had to cram our tent between others with so little room that the result was a tent slum. Maybe it was a performer’s political joke that got the audience laughing uproariously at the idea of harm to an elected official -- in the same state where their oilmen enemies once toasted the death of John F. Kennedy. Maybe it was the way a hippie can become simultaneously authoritarian and lazy when you give him the awesome power of a parking attendant.

Or maybe it’s that I’m getting old enough to prefer a thick mattress in a quiet room to a sleeping bag on uneven ground, with the neighbors playing music till sunup.

Oh well, it was a mixed pleasure but there was real pleasure in it too: a remote creek where you could ride a small waterfall and get poured into a bubbly swimming hole better than any whirlpool bath; a country store where a sign threatened to fine any customer $10 who was “grumpy, irritable or just plain mean”; the chance to meet a gifted songwriter who is an environmental activist in his native Appalachia, an abrasive, funny guy who makes $10,000 in a good year and sometimes gets jailed for his efforts and who prefers Rotary/Kiwanis audiences to Unitarians; the chance for the kids to make a new friend, a Winnipeg boy named Sage.

But what really ticked me off was the way one of my new camping acquaintances asked me if I would take some of her belongings back to Austin in my car because there wasn’t enough room in hers. Okay, no problem, an easy favor, right? Later that night she got a film–can stash from one of those bins and rolled a couple of joints to pass around. It dawned on me that she was in all likelihood asking me to transport dope for her, in a state where possession penalties can be very severe.

And she hadn’t even offered me a toke! I would have passed it on unpuffed -- haven’t smoked since college -- but still, there is such a thing as good manners.

Fortunately, when we packed up and left the next day she was off hula-hooping to folk music down by the stage and had seemingly forgotten her request.

And so we left Kerrville, driving past all the little landmarks on State Highways 16 and 290 that have become as familiar as faces you pass in a school hallway, faces of kids in other classes, other cliques. The power lines over the dip of Turtle Creek that tell you when you’re almost at the festival site; the overhead walkway at the hospital; the donut shop and the barbecue place that we always pass at inconvenient times; the cancerous horror of chain motels and big–box stores that used to be the lovely little boutique town of Fredericksburg; the wildflower farm with its contrasting fields of yellow and purple; the rainwater farm, home of the nation’s first commercial enterprise for bottling rainwater, with its cluster of rain–catching vats, each a different chalky color; the sign for a store called Althaus Acres (what?); the impossibly small and rickety town of Hye, which seems to exist mainly so that someone can keep the job of postmaster; the town of Blumenthal, where a friend of mine with that name once stayed at the Blumenthal Farms B & B so his family could have their picture taken under its sign…

And back to Austin, a place that, like New York, faithfully renews its charms with each return.