I’m telling you. I needed a K95 while shopping, just for this guy’s B.O. No matter where I was, how near or how far, I could smell him…Fumes of something putrid, something fermented, something 90 proof. Like a hamper, lid up, full of dried jockstraps and gym towels. I’m getting a brain-freeze just thinking about it now. I wanted to cuss and fuss, and make faces of disgust like Pulp Fiction’s Sam Jackson. “Babe, let’s go,” I said with one of my eyes closed, as I held my breath. The bell on the door jingled and we were out of the shoe store at the outlets in San Marcos. Really? I thought. I drove all this way to get stink-bombed? Fumigated from a shoe store? The heat outside felt like the heat inside of a car parked out in the sun all day. My glorious dad shoes will have to wait…We got in the car, and backed out. We had to be mindful of the speed bumps, though. Mall outlets are minefields of speed bumps. And we wanted to go. I could still smell the man and forgot to brace for a bump. I hit my head on the roof and my shoulder hit the window. I was bouncing around like an unfastened astronaut. “Sorry, babe,” she said. “Can we please go?!” I griped.
When she got to the street, she paused. I-35 was on our right, fields of mesquite trees on our left. Heavy rain clouds hovered above.
“Wanna drive around?” she asked.
I smiled. I rolled down the window to let out any ghosts of stinky-stink that may have followed me. It immediately began to rain with big, clear, gloopy drops. Then it stopped.
We didn’t know where we were going. Most of the time we never do. After all of these years, we know that doesn’t matter. What matters is courage over uncertainty. Memento mori. To just embark. I stopped shopping for adventures a long time ago.
We drove the fast, toll road flats at high speed playing any-mini-miny-moe at stop lights. Which way should we go? Camino Real? Let’s go. I took pictures of the skies that looked like Sistine chapel frescoes, each of the clouds puffing up and reaching out with a tremendous pose.
Well, well. We found ourselves in Martindale. We didn’t know where to go, so I told my wife, “Follow the river,” and she turned in like a VW bug rally car race driver. We drove down a street and stopped as soon as she saw a historical marker, our version of Blue’s Clues, which always gives us additional ideas for side trips. I read the sign about the 1920s era school and the gymnasium, the latter of which was designed by the same architect who designed each of the bathhouses at Barton Springs and Deep Eddy Pools. I also read that desegregation for the hispanics who lived here began in 1948. A stark reminder of the world my grandparents lived in and had to navigate. How’s that for uncertainty?
Across the street was the city cemetery with old blackish-gray tombstones. I paused to plan our next stop. I suggested to my wife we go see the gymnasium. Maybe it’s done in Art Deco, which I love. We drove around to the back, driving slowly over a dirt road with the familiar sound of tires rolling over rocks that crackle, a dirt road that sizzles, and we saw an open roof venue. I guess it wasn’t a gym anymore. We walked up to the entrance and I saw a lady inside. I startled her. She answered by asking “Can I help you with something?” which, for me, is almost never a good start. (But if I don’t break the ice, most of the time, others won’t.)
I told her what I usually tell locals in Texas to make them comfortable with a long-haired stranger popping up asking questions about the town. “Hi! We’re just visiting. We’re history buffs. What points of interest in town do you recommend us seeing?” After they size me up like scanners on barcodes, and if my grin is just right, they’ll open up and tell me about spots I wouldn’t know about otherwise. And that’s exactly what happened in this case…
“Well, right down the road there, is a slave cemetery…” I looked, but I couldn’t see anything but the dirt road and trees.
“I can’t see anything,” I said. I looked around like an Easter Egg hunter running right past the eggs.
“You see that big tree there…”
I thanked her, and my wife, son, and I walked up to the treeline. There was a hidden sign for the John Crayton Cemetery made out of two cedar posts and a fence board. This place was old. I called the family together to huddle in. I wanted us to pray first before we set in, to get our heads right. I wanted to teach my son to respect the dead. The sign said John Crayton was an early pioneer who lived here from 1839 until his death in 1873. He sold 1,000 acres of land to George Martindale, the founder of this very community I presumed. We walked in and saw a patch with weathered, crooked stones behind a short, wrought-iron fence.
I thought seeing Civil War era tombstones would capture all of my attention, but it didn’t. Behind the trees, glowing like margarita mix, the hazy, emerald San Marcos River cast a spell over our senses and we were drawn in, instantly, to the water’s edge. We were very careful where we walked and made our way through a gully and thick brush to the riverbank. My wife spotted an alligator gar gliding in the water near the surface and showed our son. I’d never seen one before. Neither had he. Other schools of fish floated still, looking like they were trapped, frozen in blue-green ice.
I stopped to crouch down and look at a vine-covered tree across the river and saw all manner of birds criss-crossing over the river to the cover of trees. They knew something I didn’t. I then felt the splatter of heavy raindrops tapping and splashing the water and pelting the ground. Is there anything more beautiful than getting caught in the rain in broad daylight? It felt so good. The raindrops shimmered like shattered bits of glass when sunlight broke through the clouds.
We walked back to the road and watched the silver pins of rain sparkle and shower the town. As soon as we got to the car, it stopped.
“Let’s go find a spot where we can get in,” I said, arm out the window, hugging the door from the outside.
We drove by the cemetery and down to the main square. We could see a few people here and there in bikinis and swimming trunks, holding their beers and pushing their sunglasses back up their noses as they laughed and talked. I wanted to steer clear of the party spots, so we drove further down to a park and drove into the parking lot. I braced for the inevitable holes and drops. We rocked in the car until we parked. I saw college-aged kids in swim trunks laughing, drying off, a foot-worn path behind them to the treeline 40 yards ahead…
I asked them about the area and if there were trails to hike.
“I don’t have my swim trunks, Dad. I’m wearing my Jordans. I can’t get them wet,” my son said.
“I’m getting in,” I replied. I just kept walking and ignored the usual doubts thrown my way.
We walked up to crystal-clear water and its lovely burble-over-the-rocks sounds, a balm for my weary mind…An older lady who had just cracked a tall boy sat on a log by a quiet, older man in the middle of the river. She was inspecting the new folks in town, so I opened it up and talked to her. She was a happy bee pleasantly abuzz, and answered all of my nerdy questions.
My son paced the banks. My wife was standing behind me. I started to take off my shoes and socks. And right as I started doing it, the lady on the log started chanting, “Roll’em up! Roll’em up!” I smiled and answered back with the same chant and a fist pump. Damn right I’m gonna roll up my pants. I’m gettin’ in. I love it.
I told my boy to fetch my water shoes in the car. Every rock hit a pressure point on my flat feet until he got back. Once I went in, the family followed and we enjoyed ourselves in the strong current of warm water, as children nearby climbed a dead tree and jumped in.
My son reset like he always does when he’s in the water and dug up clay from the river bottom and rolled up balls like dumplings and set them on a log. He skipped rocks. My wife looked at everything around her with her hands on her hips, standing in the middle flow of the river. I walked down river like I had on snowshoes, trudging against the current, in the direction of the silver water tower in the distance, the strong, clear water tugging at me to go home, to go back to the city, back to certainty.
But like I did at the cemetery, I will pass up graves for living water, for more life. I’ve had enough of certainty. I want to know what other mystery is around the bend.