On the day after Christmas in the year 1987, Henry and I escape toward the southwest. Henry is the old Volkswagen bug I drive.
Out of Kentucky and down through western Tennessee, across the flooded Mississippi at Memphis, then around Little Rock and into Arkansas' Ouchita Mountains we go; for three days getting stranded here by an unannounced snow. Finally, on a blessed sunny morning, southwestward again, this same day the graceful, moisture-loving forest yielding to northeast Texas' stunted oaks and pines. In the afternoon, on Interstate 30 heading into Dallas, the sun in my eyes and the air smelling of dust, pine resin and Henry's hot oil, I begin thinking that just maybe this escape might succeed.
Central Texas comes on flat and in gentle rolls, and most of the time there's not really anything to be called a forest or a woods. Brady, Hext, Teacup, Telegraph, Carta Valley... These town names along our route southwest through southern Texas sound good and appropriate for a landscape where now on the horizon appear flat-topped mesas straight from the Roy Rogers movies of my childhood. Chest-high shrubs and occasional cacti, yuccas and agave plants make up the vegetation. We pass miles and miles and hundreds of miles of south-Texas roadside barbed-wire fence. In late afternoon, despite the wide-openness, it's hard to find a place to camp. Plenty of dirt roads lead into the scrub toward ranches, old mines and indefinable spots, but beside each trail entrance there's a sign saying KEEP OUT. Sometimes nearby on a fencepost hangs a sun-bleached cow's skull. Finally I find a place just as the sun goes down.
Next day, just north of Del Rio, Texas, about five miles north of the Rio Grande and the Mexican border, Amistad Reservoir comes up. A sign points toward a none-fee, National Park campground offering no hookups. About thirty recreational campers, house trailers and fifth-wheels are parked in a congenially random manner. The RVs bear license plates from Michigan, Colorado, Ontario... Next to the lake, around an orange, wind-whipped fire blazing beneath willow-like trees that are not willows, several retired-looking men sit hunched-up in aluminum-framed lawnchairs. They give Henry and me the eye, trying to identify my blue and white license plate. I guess that soon I'll know each of them by name and city of origin.
I pull next to a gray, brittle-looking bush heaving mightily in the wind. For a while I just sit in Henry, looking around. The wind is a hard one so when finally I get out and begin putting up the tent, the tent's nylon sheets pop like snapping whips and fly all over me. Once the whole tent balloons full of air, drags me smack into the bush, and I can feel the old men behind me laughing and shaking their heads. Nonetheless, while I work, here's what goes through my mind:
Now I'm on the northeastern fringe of the vast Chihuahuan Desert. Now each day on long walks taken into this scrub I shall, moment by moment, gradually and properly, introduce myself to deserty things, and become sensitized to this land's arid feelings and manners of beings...
For a month, this spot next to the gray, brittle-looking bush will be my home.