The Geography of Identity; Where Blue Bonnets Paint the Hills

My sister, Becky, and me in a field of Blue Bonnets near Barton Creek Square Mall, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country

I’m returning today from a trip to Texas.  I went to Texas intending to find a job there and to return there permanently.  In other words, I changed my mind.  I no longer wanted to live in Kentucky.  I wanted to live in Texas.  But things didn’t quite work out how I had hoped they would.  So now I find myself in a hotel somewhere in Arkansas, about halfway to Lexington.  Leaving Texas is always hard, because I’m leaving home.  I’m leaving memories and people and places that cling covetously to little pieces of my identity.  I considered writing for my blog a piece titled “The Geography of Identity” in which I would map out where I’ve left different versions of myself.  The child “me” is in Austin.  He still clambers up trees, builds tree houses, catches snakes and frogs, scorpions and spiders.  His hair is still blonde and it still hangs to his shoulders.  I can still see him sitting on a hill of Blue Bonnets next to his little sister, Becky, one Easter weekend when he was four years old; meanwhile his parents are still snapping photos of them both for memory’s sake.

I remember that when my sister and I sat on that hill I was worried about crushing the Blue Bonnets.  Actually, I was more than worried.  I felt terrible.  I also remember feeling silly sitting next to my sister, holding a blue Easter bunny and posing for a picture whose significance I would only understand decades later.  What isn’t clear in the picture is that the hill on which my sister and I are sitting rises up from Loop 360, one of the busiest stretches of highway in Austin.  Even twenty-six years ago cars streamed down that road nonstop.  I was aware at the time that we were posing not only for my parents, but also for hundreds of drivers and passengers as they shot out of town into the folds of the Texas hill country or made their way to Austin’s newest mega-mall: Barton Creek Square.

Everything outside of the picture still exists.  The four lane highway carries more cars today than when I was a boy, but it looks exactly as it did almost three decades ago.  The mall has changed very little on the outside.  A few apartments have risen on nearby hills with glorious views of downtown Austin and the thunderstorms that roll in from the east every Spring.  Everything in the picture, however, has disappeared.  The hill remains, of course, but Lady Bird Johnson and her army of Blue Bonnet enthusiasts stopped seeding that hill soon after my sister and I posed on it for my parents.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, in the interest of public safety, the city itself forbade parking on the shoulder of the highway to take pictures.

So now, at any given time of year, in any season, if you venture to the hill along Loop 360 you will see neither Blue Bonnets nor little children posing for their parents.  Instead, you will see pointy cedar bushes creeping down toward the highway.  But in my mind I see something different.  The blue bonnets still paint the hill azure, my sister and I are still sitting next to each other among the forest of flowers, and my parents still futz around us with their cameras, always just a moment away from taking a picture that today recalls a moment grown more poignant with time.

*I’m going to keep blogging, but I’ll probably post about once a week from now on.  I love sharing the world with anyone who happens to read these miscellany.  I’ll keep commenting on other blogs, of course.  Thank you for your time and conversation.  It means the world to me.

Father and Baby Son On the Edge (of a Cliff…)

Two Saturdays ago I walked by a man and his baby boy sitting on the edge of a cliff that drops four hundred feet to a lake below.  Here is what happened.  Early that morning I made my way to the Loop 360 bridge that spans Lake Austin, a dammed up section of the Colorado River.  The lake is about as wide as the river that once flowed freely through this part of the green Texas Hill Country.  The 360 bridge explodes from a blasted-out wedge of limestone on the north side of the lake.  It shoots from a vertical wall of white cliffs toward the flat south shore, four hundred feet below and a quarter of a mile across.  The bridge hangs from a series of cables suspended from two steel support arches, both red with rust.  On its north side, before flying over Lake Austin, the bridge cuts a five hundred foot gouge through bleached limestone, so that three hundred foot cliffs line both the north and the southbound sides of the four-lane highway as it approaches the lake and the bridge. 

I’ve crossed this bridge hundreds of times in my life.  I always assumed that the cliffs to either side of it were off limits.  But on this day, two weeks ago, I hiked up to the ledge above the southbound side of the highway and found neither signs nor fences barring my way.  Below, cars shot down the bridge, over the lake, and continued south where the hills swallowed them up.  I stumbled upon a black and grey tent set fifteen feet back from the cliff’s edge.  Gusts of wind pounded the cliff and shook a lone sinewy cedar tree that clung to cracks in the limestone cliff face.  Its branches creaked in the wind.  Twigs snapped, flew at me, and bounced off of the tent.  The tent flattened, then sprang upright at regular intervals.  

Loop 360 Bridge

I guessed that a climber or backpacker slept inside, but within moments of my arrival a dark-skinned, muscular man in his thirties emerged, wearing only blue jeans.  In his right hand he held a baby carrier, and in the baby carrier slept a baby boy of ten months.  In his left hand the man carried a lawn chair and a blocky 70s era radio.  He walked to the edge of the cliff, set the radio below the cedar tree, unfolded the lawn chair with one hand, and placed the baby carrier to the right of the chair.  He fell into the chair and turned the radio to a contemporary pop music station.  Man, baby, and radio all sat within two feet of the cliff’s edge. 

The man leaned back and turned his head from left to right, taking in the panorama laid out before him.  To the east, far downriver, downtown Austin rose grey from the plains that flow out of the Texas Hill Country.  Below, the 360 Bridge flew over Lake Austin and poured traffic in a straight line south to the edge of the horizon.  To the west, the lake curved southward around a bend at the base of the limestone cliffs that rise from its banks.  Beyond and above the cliffs, hills grown thick with cedars and oak trees rose and fell in swells of light and dark greens.  Houses bobbed on the crests of some swells and larger buildings plied through the troughs in between them.

Father and Son on the Edge

The lake, the hills, and the clouds gliding overhead all took on liquid qualities.  Cars flowed along Loop 360 toward a dot that vanished on the horizon.  Music oozed like liquid sound from the old blocky radio, and the tent and the trees swayed like seaweed in time with the currents of the humming wind. 

It occurred to me that every hour some five thousand cars passed below this strange man, seated on a cliff ledge beside his baby boy, fighting the gusting wind that threatened to whisk his son and his tent away.  Every hour five thousand drivers passed below him, and not one of them knew of his existence.  Not one knew that he had camped here the night before with his son; that he had slept above the intersection of two rivers, one of water, the other of flesh, metal, and asphalt.  Not one knew that father and son had watched the sun set over the western hills that tumbled into the distance like the lingering ripples of some divine thought propagating itself through the tissue of the earth.