Thursday, October 7, 2010

And Even More Research Trips

Last Friday I met Cynthia Leal Massey for a tour of 1865 Helotes. The lady at Stellar's Books had given me her contact information when she sold me Helotes: Where the Hill Country Begins, and I'd e-mailed her asking for assistance getting what I need for the scene in Len's story that takes place there. She generously offered to take me around and explain things in person, because it is all pretty confusing.

We met in front of Floore's Country Store and went over maps on their back patio. She has a friend whose passion is figuring out local historical geography, who provided her with copies of relevant maps and census records. I love the way research people love to share!

After going over the maps and giving Cynthia an idea of what the scene needs to accomplish, we hit the road. Although the place called Helotes dates back to 1858, the oldest house in the "Old Helotes" that you see when you pull off Bandera Road onto Old Bandera Road dates to 1881. Prior to that the Helotes community consisted of scattered ranches and small home businesses, most notably the blacksmith shop that later became a post office. The stage stopped in Helotes as early as 1858, but it's not clear exactly where or what the relationship between the stop and the stage company was. At any rate, in spring 1865, the stage, like all other regular business in western Texas, was suspended; but the blacksmith's was recognized as the place it stopped for maintenance, water, and a change of horses when it was running, and would also have been a landmark and a necessity for people coming in, as Len, Cave, and the bushwhackers come in, from the rocky hills to the west.

The blacksmith's/stagecoach stop grew organically, like most frontier homes. In the beginning, you threw up a basic shelter to meet your minimum needs so you'd have shelter while getting your garden, ranch, and workshops under way. As your economy and your family expanded your needs, you expanded your house. Therefore, the original building is a subset of the current residence, currently on private property. The gate was open, but Cynthia couldn't raise the owners on the phone so we only did a drive-by; and she gave me their contact information so that if I felt a need for a closer look I could ask for one.

Cynthia did her best to show me the configuration of the road at that time, but since "road" is at best a generous term for the ungraded route you could get a wheeled vehicle over in those days, every modern improvement to the roadways has changed the routes used, and modern subdivision have been platted without reference to the original roads, it was uphill work. Moreover, all the historical accounts agree that the present cover of cedar and mesquite brush did not exist prior to the early 20th century, let alone all the houses, fences, windbreaks, etc. of modern residential development. Routes that Len will experience as clear lines of sight are a muddle on the ground today, and even with a map it's hard to puzzle out exactly what was happening, apart from a general tendency of the road to follow the watersheds. She did show me one gravel passage that her cartographer friend believes is an original piece of stagecoach road.

We then went out Scenic Loop Road (old Marnoch Road) to see the two-story Marnoch Mansion - again from the road, as it is a residence. It is well off Len's most probable route, but in those days would have been visible as a landmark for miles. Built in 1858 by a Scottish Naval surgeon, it's a showplace of imported architectural details that was built to house a large family and withstand Indian attack. Unlike modern rural residences, it was not built on the hill, but down near the creek.

We drove around Grey Forest, talking about caves and cliffs, and then out to see the ruins of the Zepeda house, the ranch Len would likely come to first if she rejoins the Bandera Road where I think she does. The Zepedas knew their stonework: the remains include a beautiful arch. (Pictures not processed yet; I so need to get a digital camera.) And she told me stories, lots of stories, the kinds of stories that historians always have at their tongues' tips, primed to spill out at sight of a relevant landmark. Murders, massacres, dance halls, graveyards, bandits, draft dodging, all the color and texture that lies underneath even the chain stores and McMansions lining our highways, if we only go looking for it.

So that was Friday. As if that weren't enough, Saturday was the Val Verde Archeology Fair and the camels. Three hours out, three hours back. The friends we were going to go there with had to cancel at the last minute, but we did all right by ourselves. The fair had a good turn-out, and I got to show Damon the pretty backlots that lurk off the highway in small Texas towns. I hadn't been to Del Rio but once, when I was in elementary school, and then it was only passing through to take my grandparents to Mexico, but I felt at home there in the unexpected way you do when you come to a place that resembles one of the towns of your childhood. The quality of the air and the light, the configuration of the neighborhoods, the particular ethnic distribution of the faces, the floral and faunal (especially avian) assemblages, even the way the streets were named: All familiar.

But that was incidental. I came to learn about camels, and I did. Doug Baum answered all my questions and asked me questions in turn. Sonja Shell, another writer there to learn about camels, got out her folding wheel and made yarn from camel hair. I decided I need to go to the Texas Camel Corps's workshop in Pipe Creek. I've worked out much better how the cliff scene will have to work, and certain of Sheikh's scenes will have to be substantially reworked, but a little more direct experience will be all to the good. Did you know that when camels lie down air circulates under their bellies? Don't you wish you could do that?

Also - caracara on the way out, roadrunner on the way home.

I'm still, alas, paying for all this overstimulation and for drinking regular tea instead of decaf two days in a row; but we all make sacrifices for our art, right?

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