Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Another Research Trip: Hill Country State Natural Area

Saturday Damon and I went in search of cliffs. Our most relevant venue was Hill Country State Natural Area, where I have camped once and he has not. For a variety of reasons, we were not camping this weekend; but I needed to re-experience the terrain, and he didn't want me out in it by myself. This meant driving out in the morning, which meant no real shot at the good birds and hiking in the hot part of the day, but our choices were limited and I need a cliff.

So we parked in the second equestrian camping area, planned a route that would give me the right kind of terrain but wouldn't demand too much of us, and headed out with our backpacks full of food and water bottles that had been left in the freezer overnight. (These are essential travel accessories in Texas in the summer, which lasts till October. Don't leave home without them.) Plus, binoculars and the Peterson Guide because you never know.

We monitored each other. We stopped as often as either of us needed to. We drank frequently. We checked the map every time we came to a cross trail. I talked about the scenes that need to happen and the problems involved in making them integral, logical parts of the story. Damon talked around the problems he's having with the next phase of the Pathfinder campaign. He couldn't talk about the problems directly because I'm playing under him, but he used to work high-security systems in the Service and we have a lot of practice in the sorts of conversations that help him find his solution without giving me sensitive data.

We found more than one cliff and one thing I realized is, that it doesn't have to be a major movie cliff where you look down and see the backs of eagles to be a major life-or-death choice to jump one. Even if you strip out most of the brush and trees, which are a relatively modern development in the area, these five- and six-foot drops could be neck-breakers. On one, the top of the cliff was dirt held in place by vegetation over a layer of ankle-turning rocks and a sheer drop down to a slope. Another was not so much a cliff as a rockshelter on the edge of what would have been, in 1865 before we started draining our aquifers, a live creek. In order to descend safely, your horse would either have to make a precision jump to a boulder in the middle of the water and then a hop to the other side of the creek, or take off with enough momentum to carry him what looked, from the bottom, like a ridiculous distance to secure ground. The creek beds here are for the most part deep V-shapes with broad tops, and of course all the brush and trees would be concentrated there in the sea-of-grass days.

Anyway, I kept trying out scenarios and sequences and combinations of circumstance, playing with the variables of the plot. And at some point - not because we weren't paying attention! - we realized that every time we looked at a map we realized that the previous time we'd looked at a map we hadn't identified our location correctly. We went on far more difficult trails than our plan had called for. One of them may even have been a game trail rather than the marked path we thought it was.

We weren't lost, not in the sense of being in danger of needing search parties to track us by the circling vultures. From lunchtime on, we always knew where we were in relation to the access road, and we followed, sort of, the general area of our original route. By the second time we crossed the road, we were drinking our water faster than it was melting and Damon was crashing. So I volunteered to go ahead and bring the car back to pick him up. Sensibly, he agreed. He got over all that macho no-I'm-fine stuff shortly after the Year from Hell.

But by the time I reached the first equestrian camp I was crashing kind of hard myself. Hard enough to ask for help. All I intended to ask for was a lift to the second camp; but what I got was a family doctor who carried me straight back to get him and gave him Gatorade and tangerines. He had to lie down for a little while, and then I drove us back to Bandera for more water and Gatorade, and back toward home as far as Helotes, where I crashed during the stop at Stellar Books. By that time he felt much better and was able to drive us home. We spent all of Sunday recovering - I had in fact saved Mockingjay for just such an occasion, as I knew I wouldn't be doing anything useful between its first and last pages anyway. I'm not quite over it yet.

On Sunday morning I got up and read on my writing listserve that the husband of one our members, who are all my friends even though I've never seen most of them in the flesh, had died while climbing in the Rocky Mountains, at about the same time that my husband was not dying or even being seriously ill, just massively uncomfortable.

Yeah, I don't know how to react either. Nobody ever does.

It might have been different, for either of us. But it wasn't. Nobody outlined this. Nobody decided that this husband was still necessary to the plot or that the other husband's most dramatic impact could be achieved by dying. No one put a doctor in my campground instead of close enough to the accident site to save my friend's husband's life. It was all contingency, chance, individual and collective choices, physics, biology.

We like stories partly because nothing in them is arbitrary. Narrative imposes order onto the chaos of real life. Narrative creates meaning. But if real life were like that, we'd want to lynch the author.

1 comment:

  1. Oh Peni, so sorry to hear about your cyber friend. And, I hope your cliff finding adventure was a success.