Driving along backroads the last week of the year, in my 1976 Volkswagen Westfalia, or as I’ve always known it, “Granddaddy’s van”, memories of camping with Grand and Granddaddy were on my mind. As I wound through the beautiful Texas hill country, I wondered what they would have thought of the landscape – so different than the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains we traveled and camped in when I was a kid.
I also thought of the crack in my heart. 12 moons had passed since saying goodbye to the two horses who still own a part of it. As I struggled with the thin, antique sun visor that barely shielded one small ray of the piercing morning light, I remembered something Leonard Cohen had written. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. I stopped struggling with the sun visor that had two futile positions: down that didn’t provide any shade and up that didn’t provide any shade. You win Texas…the light was determined and I stopped fighting it – I was seeking light anyway.
Arriving anywhere after driving Granddaddy’s van is its own celebration. Unless you’ve recently driven an antique, boxy stick shift, without power steering, without padded seats, and without any remotely modern inventions such as large mirrors to help with visibility or a visor that can be used to shield more than one small ray of the sun, it’s impossible to imagine how fatiguing it can be. Climate control consists of rolling the window up or down. If there’s a steep incline there is no choice but to go slowly as the small engine is only going to do so much regardless of the traffic behind you and you need to always be prepared for the slightest change in conditions such as breaks in the pavement, gravel, or debris. You must be aware of headwinds and crosswinds in the light, top-heavy vehicle, you have to anticipate when to shift just a second before you need to – you can’t stop quickly or maneuver easily – there’s no such thing as slamming on the brakes or gunning the engine and you have to be very mindful of everyone and everything on the road. There is no USB or a CD player or radio to distract you from your thoughts which is good because driving is an actual task. We mostly steer our vehicles today – you have to drive Granddaddy’s van. It demands that you are present and rewards you with driving in a quieter, slower-paced, softer time.
I got out, stretched and relaxed my shoulders, tense from the 90-minute drive, and walked into the small state park office to buy a park pass for a day of hiking. I was immediately struck by the noise. The cars and SUVs, the loud trucks with extra-large nuisance mufflers, the crowds with their music and phones, the barking dogs, and the sounds of life revved up to 2019 levels. I had just stepped out of a humble 1976 and was thrown into an aggressive 2019.
I asked a ranger for directions to the most remote trails and that’s when I met Lyndon Johnson. He was named after one president and looked like another (still not sure how his last name isn’t Bush). With that polite Texas draw (or is it drawl?), I heard someone say, “Ma’am?”, as I was despondently climbing back into 1976, unsure if I would be successful in finding the remote woods I was seeking. He offered to show me the way to what he already seemed to understand I was searching for. I followed his truck through the busyness and crowds and we pulled into the two remaining parking spots – apparently saved for us, side-by-side. Within a few minutes, my dog, Gracie, and I were walking alongside Lyndon Johnson and his grandson, Quail. And so began my presidential day as we, as if pre-planned, started hiking together.
From the beginning, I felt her presence – a feeling I couldn’t explain. There was something about Lyndon’s magnetic energy. He was 76, yet I would have bet my arm he was maaaay-be early 60s. He was spry, just like she had been regardless of age. He was enthusiastic and clearly happy to be spending time with his grandson, hiking in the woods. There was an ease about them as if they were together every day – but Quail was only visiting for the holidays.
It was as if I was watching the male versions of my memories of Grand and me. Lyndon was reminiscent of Grand and in many ways, Quail reminded me of myself – young and trying to keep up with Grand as she hiked across the Appalachian Trail as if it were her own. His light steps reminded me of how she used to dance on the rocks as we crossed the creeks – Quail and me joking that we were having to work to keep up.
Throughout the day, we shared stories and created others. We marveled at the bright green ferns hanging from the large, wet rocks and I would think back to when I was Quail’s age hiking with Grand, as she pretended to be Ms. Perkins, the woman who lived in the woods…a game we played for hours. Ms. Perkins would decorate her make-believe house with ferns and leaves and tell stories all along the way. We’d find a hollowed-out tree and Ms. Perkins would pretend it was her closet. We’d see a natural cave in the brush and that would be Ms. Perkin’s library. I’d forgotten about Ms. Perkins and all of our experiences but on that day, the memories were alive and vivid.
Hiking with two people I hadn’t known before driving into that park, inventing tales about the wild hog paths we were on, and their bedrooms and spa rooms – there was a familiarity so palpable that there was never an awkward moment – it felt as though it had been planned in advance.
I learned that the park and the trails we were on had helped his heart heal when it was cracked open many years ago. His grandkids, Quail’s family, had moved out of state and while they were still in touch, he and his wife no longer had them in their daily lives. He described buying a year-long park pass and explained how he came every day – driving in each day from his ranch, the one with the name Haven in it.
As he shared his story, he had no way of knowing that I was there that day for the same reason. My heart was cracked, not from the distance of family, but from horses who had moved away and I was seeking nature to help me heal and to give Gracie, who no longer got to run and romp on the ranch, the opportunity to run and explore.
The day was a highlight reel of present experiences and fond memories blending together. There was Grand playing Ms. Perkins along the river’s edge blending into Lyndon poking his homemade walking stick with the shotgun shell base into an armadillo hole, convincing me it was coming out. There was Quail skipping rocks with his grandfather watching closely – or wait, was that me skipping rocks with Grand standing nearby searching for the flattest rocks for me?
When I commented that I wasn’t buying some of their fish tales since we weren’t seeing many fish – Lyndon and Quail spotted, almost simultaneously, a 3-foot-long needle nose gar who practically put on a show for us as it lingered near the shore.
The hours flew by and we headed back to civilization. I felt as though I had spent the day with Grand in an oddly, non-Grand, but rather very Lyndon and Quail sort of way. Preparing to leave, we exchanged contact information. I leaned against Granddaddy’s van and looked over at Gracie, my little dog, happy and tired and jotted down Quail’s number. I turned to close the van door and said, “Oh, if you don’t mind Quail, what is your last name?”
“Perkins”, he replied.
I stopped writing and thought, ‘Of course his name is Perkins, what else would it be?’
I climbed back into 1976, to start the slow journey home and remembered something I had read that morning, before leaving the house: Understand more than you can explain. A lot of light came in through the crack in my heart that serendipitous day and I understand all of it. But I can’t explain any of it.
Thanks for reading,