Thursday, May 6, 2010

Location Scout #2: Medina County

Almost as soon as I get past the shadow of the I-35 heading south and west of downtown I begin to feel the sky opening up into the South Texas plain. It's hard to judge how far west the city extended in the days I'm thinking of. It's tempting to cut off the town at the present interstate highways running down either side of it, 10/35 on the west and 37 on the east. Mauermann's map encourages me to do so, extending only as far as Pecan in the east and with Laredo the last named street to the west; but since historically these areas are the "black" and "Mexican" parts of town, respectively, and since numerous important sites are indicated off the edges of the map, I'm disinclined to take it at face value. The area west of San Fernando, per one source, was called "Laredito" during the relevant period; and west of Laredo Mauermann shows two distinct streets (modern Santa Rosa and San Saba, I think), numerous tracks, clusters of buildings, the "Dutch windmill," and the plain where Gen. Sheridan reviewed troops. My 1852 plat map also lays out much of the area inside modern Loop 410, with small townlots not giving way to larger lots till west of Alazan Creek. My impression is that the town became less townlike and more villagelike out this way, and that I should mentally replace the present lively cultural life represented by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and the giant votive candle with an equally lively suburban life of market gardens, jacales, and a working class that (if we may believe all the accounts of nightly fandangos from this period) also knew how to party hard.

Anyway, I was going somewhere with this, and that's Castroville. The Old Castroville Road loses its identity and merges with U.S. Hwy. 90 at Callaghan Road, within site of Wilford Hall, the tallest portion of Lackland AFB, and it doesn't take long after that to feel that you've "left town." The south side doesn't sprawl nearly as much as the north side (which is a shame, because there's less aquifer to interfere with out there) and though technically you're not out of town till you pass 1604, functionally the border is still 410. This is rolling prairie, not rolling hills, and its beauties require a more trained and subtle eye willing to see a good long way. I like it, myself. The flowers were overwhelmingly yellow and the sky was overwhelmingly blue.

Although technically Castroville was an information stop to get local maps and information to assist me in getting as close as possible to the old Mormon settlement shown on my mid-19th-century county map, I spent a lot more time there than I meant to. Medina County presents a more diffuse historical presence to the visitor than Bandera did - not that local history isn't being done, or that tourist interest is not sought, but that it has no central depository and no single figure that automatically draws the eye. The online presence is negligible, and has no central building. I've received no reply from the first e-mail I sent and the Chamber of Commerce had no contact information to give me. The historical walking tour is on my List of Things to Do, and if I spent too long at Koenig Park blame the barred owls (two of them!) that all by themselves made the day worthwhile. The librarian with the son in Mico and the Chamber of Commerce maps agreed that getting around the west side of Lake Medina was not practical, but were a big help in sorting out what series of county roads to follow.

To approximate the route to the Mormon settlement, take 471 north from Castroville. This is open prairie, with a fringe of hills cutting off the far distance to the west. At Rio Medina, turn west to cross the river on 2676. This bend is shown clearly on the 19th-century map and I presume the river at this point is fordable, but the bridge feels so high above the river and I had already spent so much more time than I intended that I didn't get a good look at. I did not stop in Rio Medina on the way up; and on the way back the "lady who knows," Bonnie Jaks, wasn't at the general store, so I'm still not sure whether Len would meet any real people on her way through here; however, I'll find out.

The Medina River at this point is a boundary line - once across it, you're in the Hill Country. Turn north again at the first right turn you come to. This is CR 271 and will be your lifeline. The road is narrow, with a marge of wildflowers - Indian blanket mostly right now - and then cedar/live oak scrub with some mesquite. The open sky prairie is gone, and I'm afraid I didn't see as much as Len did, because Moby, unlike Len's faithful steed Bean, cannot be trusted not to go off the road while I'm figuring out what the understory plants are. If you want to stop you generally have to block a gate across a private drive or road or crush some wildflowers. The road winds more than it appears to on the map; and Mico is less obvious.

When the dam was constructed in 1912, it drowned not only the Mormon Settlement, but the road to it. As near as I can tell, present-day 151 was the Castroville Road down from Bandera; it vanishes on the north side of the lake now into a maze of private roads. Its nearest heirs on the south side of the lake are the complex, twisty network of 260, 264, and 271. In 1936, a historical marker for the settlement, under the name of "Mountain Valley" (not to be confused with modern Mountain Valley Ranch) was erected on the dam; however, Homeland Security has closed the dam and you can't see even the historical marker anymore. Although the marker claims the settlement was abandoned in 1858, I've seen other information indicating that it had people in it who needed relocating in 1912. The nice Mr. Wilburn I ran across in front of the Mico Volunteer Fire Department gave me the phone number of the man organizing the centenniel, so maybe I'll be able to find out! (Their web page calendar is blank, but their fund raising barbeque is Saturday, May 8th, so if you're in the neighborhood, consider showing up.)

I began to feel discouraged poking around back there. I ate lunch in a turnaround on CR 271 because all the lakefront recreational areas on the south side of the lake are privately owned. I only had $16 on me, and entrance fees based on the assumption that you and a carful of kids are going to hike, boat, fish, swim, picnic, and generally raise cain on the property all afternoon were too rich for my blood. What started out as a massive irrigation project has turned into a recreation lake and a flash point for property rights and public access disputes.

I don't blame the proprietors for my lowered mood. Everyone I spoke to was as friendly and helpful as I could wish. This isn't like the hotels on South Padre Island cutting the locals out of beachfront for the sake of rich tourists; or even the gated community syndrome of rich folks buying up all the pretty and shutting the riffraff out, though such people exist. Locals trying to support a rural lifestyle by making rural pursuits available to citydwellers would be fools to charge less than they can get or make exceptions for researchers who just need a quiet spot to eat trail mix and make notes on floral and faunal assemblages. The only state park on the lake is in Lakehills, on the Bandera County side of the lake, and as state parks go it's nothing to write home about, at least not when the water's down and, as I was, you're too tired to explore properly. (There was supposed to be a $10 use fee even there, but I didn't see anybody to pay, so I didn't.)

The discouragement was the result of a number of factors - frustration at not being able to peel back the present and see the past underneath; the balance-challenged prairie native's unease at having all her lines of sight cut off by graded roads, hills, and second-growth brush; and my natural afternoon crash. But I realized, sitting at a picnic table and wondering if the relief of getting into the water with the frolicking dogs would be worth the effort of finding a place to change into my suit, that my discouragement is a road into Len's head. She wouldn't be crossing this terrain alone (except for Bean) in the first place if she weren't in deepest black teen-age despair. So I thought about that for awhile, and made notes. Mountain Valley to her would feel like the Valley of Doom. And then, on the wind, the letters blowing into her hand, Di's voice in the silent paper; and the echoing directionless shots, and the vultures circling.

So I headed back the way I had come - it would have been shorter to go up to 16, but that wasn't the point of this trip, and I wanted to stop in Rio Medina. Along a stretch of 271, I had noticed different flowers among the Indian blankets, flowers I haven't seen anywhere else so far, of a deep wine color, and when I started coming to them again I stopped to take a closer look. They're poppy mallow, or wine cups. And as I studied them, and tried to decide if the drive I was blocking was ever used, I heard a deep "chup chup chup" across the road. So I crossed. And there they were. The vultures.

Black vultures, which are expanding their range and I suspect will have to be displaced by turkey vultures in the story. I didn't have my camera on me and they flew off, chup chup chup with their ponderous black wings, but first they told me clear as can be: the body's here, among the winecups. And Len, gathering as many of his daughter's scattered letters as she can, comes out of her own blackness to resume the duties of humanity, hard as they are.

I didn't take a picture because I know how it would turn out, the birds all flown, just an open space in the brush with a mesquite tree. It didn't look like this back then, anyway. Livestock has been run up here; people have tried to make their living off this land; it would have been a more open and a more mature vegetation and I'll have to do the best I can with it. Since that moment of certainty I've been awake half the night working out what problems this site solves and which new ones it creates. But I'm not going to argue with vultures.

Half a mile later a roadrunner let me see him scamper along the roadside. I project my feelings onto nature and give meaning to birds. The barred owls in the morning were a promise; the vultures fulfilled it; and the roadrunner confirmed it. Knowing that the birds didn't notice me and couldn't care less if I ever write a story or not doesn't change that. Meaning is a human construct.

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