Magic In the Unexpected

My husband and I used to be a couple of rolling stones when it came to traveling. We’d pack our tent in the trunk of our car and go wherever the winds seemed to blow us. We rarely did much preplanning because there always seemed to be an available spot for setting up our roving household. There was only one time when we got caught without a place to stay and that was many decades ago when we decided to visit Yellowstone National Park on a whim. We had a fun day exploring the park but when it came time to retire for the evening there was no room at the inn, not even a small space for our little tent. 

We drove from one place after another attempting to find a spot to rest our weary bodies, but everything was full. We ended up parking by the side of the road and sleeping for a few hours all cramped together in our car. In many ways that was the end of our serendipity when it came to vacations. Still, there is nothing quite as wonderful as an unexpected moment that takes us off of the main road and along a pathway that we have never before thought to take. Thus it was when I received a message from a cousin inviting us to her home in Albuquerque. 

A few years back I joined and began an attempt to fill out more of the branches of my family tree. In an effort to find out more about myself and my family I even took a DNA test. In the beginning I knew very little about my ancestors beyond my grandparents, but I did have the names of my maternal grandmother’s parents. Using that information her story began to quickly unfold. Her father was John William Seth Smith, the son of Austin Boley Smith and Biddy Ann Fitzsimmons. John was the eldest son of a very large family and among his brothers and sisters was a fellow named David. 

Before long I received a message from one of David’s descendants asking me for information on my father, me and my family. Vickye was a cousin, a fact verified by my own chart and the DNA test that I had taken. She kindly sent me a photo of my grandmother Minnie Bell, from a time when she was quite young, something that I had never before seen. She also included a picture of my great grandmother Cristina. It was quite exciting to see these images and to know that I had found a relative who had been previously unknown to me. 

Vickye looked so much like my Aunt Opal, my father’s half sister, that it was uncanny. Her ancestor, David, resembled many of my first cousins from my father’s side of the family. Even though nobody has ever come across a photo of my great grandfather, I have felt as though I may have a fairly good idea of how he may have looked given the resemblance of David to family members that I know. Learning about Vickye and her passion for genealogy was a special treat for me and so we became friends on Facebook and I began to follow her posts and learn more and more about her. 

Vickye plays the piano and one of her favorite hobbies was to play music with her late husband Buzz. Likewise many of my Aunt Opal’s children were quite musically talented. My cousin Lillian used to dazzle us with her skills on the piano and some of her brothers both sang and played their guitars. I decided that there must surely be a music gene that runs in the family even though that skill appears to have passed me over. 

I knew that Vickye lived somewhere in New Mexico, but I had little idea that her abode was in Albuquerque. When she saw that Mike and I were in her town she suggested that we come to her home for a little visit. We quickly accepted her generous offer and drove to her place. It would turn out to be one of the most incredible afternoons of our entire trip, and an touchingly meaningful moment for me.

Much like my grandmother Minnie Bell, Vickye has a green thumb and has turned her backyard into a lovely and peaceful oasis. Even though the temperatures were quite high on the day of our visit, her patio was cool and comfortable. We sat around a table under a fan sipping on iced tea and learning a bit more about each other and about the family from whence I have descended. Vickye was so like my grandmother Minnie Bell in her nature and her hostessing skills. I felt as though I had known her my entire life. She was an important connection for me because I had lost my father when I was only eight, and my grandmother died when I was fifteen. I had been too young then to have much interest in knowing who the people were who had come before me. Vickye filled in so many of the gaps that had baffled and bewildered me. In the process she demonstrated the power of those connections because not only did she remind me so much of various people in my father’s family that I did know, but everyone saw a definite resemblance between me and her. 

I’m a talker and I haven’t gotten out much in the past year and a half so I might have overstayed my welcome just a bit, but I had a hard time tearing myself away from my new found relative. I truly felt comfortable with her in a way that only the bond of our common ancestry and genetics might explain. I will always remember our afternoon together as one of the great highlights of my life, and I am incredibly thankful to Vickye for inviting me to her home and telling me more about the story of who I am. I fell in love with her and with her city on that trip even as I had never imagined that such a thing would occur. There is still much magic in the unexpected. 

Becoming One With the Earth and With Each Other

Even though I have been to and through Albuquerque, New Mexico a few times, I was never there long enough to know much about it. When our daughters were still young we considered camping in our tent in the outskirts of the city. While we were checking the sites I noticed hot pink signs stapled to the trees and hanging on the buildings. When I finally read one of them I decided that we would not be lingering in the campground. The posts indicated that there was an unusually high number of rattlesnakes in the area, and urged anyone camping to be exceedingly cautious. We instead found a motel for the night, and left the city early the next day. They only pleasant thing I remembered from that occasion was the cool morning air and a lone hot air balloon floating across the horizon. 

Many years later I would accompany a group of high school students on what was known as the southwest tour, an annual trip designed to visit universities and locales in west Texas and eastern New Mexico. On that journey I took a tour of the University of New Mexico along with my pupils, but saw little more of Albuquerque as we quickly hustled off to Santa Fe after viewing the campus. 

I suppose that I began to see Albuquerque in a very different light after watching Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, both programs that more often featured the underbelly of that city rather than the more interesting history and culture of the place. I found myself longing to learn more about the what Albuquerque was really about, and so we arranged to spend two days and nights exploring the sites around town. I wanted to know more than the make believe version that I had seen on television.

We set up our trailer in a delightful RV park that seemed to be conveniently close to everything. In fact, I marveled at how easy it was to get from one side of the city to another. In Houston it can take an hour or more to move from one part of its vast urban sprawl to another. We seemed to be staying right in the heart of things while also having the feel of being in a quiet and remote area. Best of all there were lovely mountain views from the picnic table on our site, and those same cool mornings and evenings that I remembered from the past.

We decided to first visit Old Town Albuquerque set in the center of the city where the first capitol of New Mexico had been The historic buildings reminded me very much of areas of New Orleans which also has a rich connection to Spanish influence. Unique shops and restaurants are the attraction and I worried a bit that my husband Mike might become bored with my excitement about viewing the arts and crafts featured there. Instead he seemed delighted, which surprised me given that it quickly became very hot and he usually has little interest in such things. I suspect that he was mostly intrigued by the architecture and the feeling of being in a different time and place that the area engendered. 

We found a unique piece of stained class that captures the beauty and essence of the landscape around Albuquerque. We learned that it had been created by a local senior craftsman who mostly makes the pieces to help support a group that provides services for older citizens. We also sampled locally produced olive oils and vinegars and decided to bring some of the most unique ones back home. All in all we had a fun morning casually strolling and feeling as though we had somehow landed in a place that had successfully blended the cultures of Spain and Native America.

After enjoying a bite of lunch we went the to Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. I must say that it housed some of the most moving exhibits that I have ever seen. The first area featured the stories of Native American women and their impact on the Pueblo people and ultimately on America. Each story was fascinating and spoke to the influence of females in guiding, teaching and inspiring the young. The featured women represented educators, scientists, business women, lawyers, politicians, doctors and demonstrated how each woman brought her unique Native American experience to the work that she did.

There was also a section of the museum that focused on the history of the Native American tribes that lived in the area. It was an honest and even-handed depiction of their way of life and how misunderstood they had been by the settlers who came to so unthinkingly take their lands and their way of doing things. It was not an angry or accusing recitation of what had happened, but one that attempted to understand the complexities of a time when two cultures clashed. 

It was in this museum that I learned of the legacy of storytelling that is central to the Pueblo people. It is though the spoken word that the language, traditions, history, knowledge and stories have been passed from one generation to the next. Often the storytellers have been the women, who in their own way are the teachers of the children. The little statues of a woman voicing her information with an open mouth and children clinging to her are known as the storytellers. I was totally fascinated by all that I saw and heard. 

There was so much to learn in that museum, so much wisdom to take with me. I snapped photos of beautiful objects, and recipes and philosophies. One of my favorites was entitled Mother Earth. Here is what it said:


Like mother

She formed us in her belly.

Like mother

she birthed us into the upper world.

Like mother 

she nourishes all living things.

Like mother 

she provides comfort and safety.

Like mother 

she requires love and respect. 

In our way of life, women embody the characteristics of the earth on which we rely. Women nurture life and are creators of bodies and homes. By calling the earth our mother we show great respect not only for the earth but for the women who represent her. 

I felt both humbled and uplifted by what I saw in Albuquerque that day. It is a lovely city with a heritage that has much to teach us all. We would be wise to take heed of our connection with the earth and with each other. In the shadow of the great mountains under the cool skies at the beginning and end of each day it was easy to imagine how important it is for all of us to become more at one with earth and with each other.

Finding America

Amarillo, Texas is five hundred ninety nine miles from Houston. Located in the panhandle of the state, it is the last major stop before leaving the Texas and entering New Mexico. Travelling by car, if all goes well, it can be reached in a little over nine hours, not including the reality that just getting into the outskirts of Houston may sometimes require an additional hour of driving. With stops for gasoline, breaks for food, and so forth it is more likely to take anywhere from ten to to eleven hours of hard driving through one small town after another before reaching Amarillo. 

I’ve gone through Amarillo many times, usually around dinner time after driving all day long. I’ve generally viewed the city as little more than a stopping point on my way to other places. In more recent years I’ve actually breezed through the place to get a few more hours of daylight driving because the conveniences in smaller towns farther along my route have improved greatly over the years. I have known of Amarillo, but I have not really known Amarillo. 

For our recent trip, we decided to actually spend some time in the city just to learn a bit more about the place. We found a great campground, dropped off our trailer, and drove almost immediately to a local attraction that has become legendary. In what was once a field on the outskirts of town, a local artist created a modern work of art by burying several Cadillacs nose down in the ground. The vehicles form a kind of modern day Stonehenge as they silently sit in a perfectly arrange row as though some force greater than mankind had placed them there. It was no small feat to create the exact angles by which they peek from the ground or to make certain that they would forever remain steadily symmetrical.

Over time the attraction became a kind of mecca for graffiti artists and ordinary tourists who try their hands at painting the iconic vehicles with the fluorescent shades usually found on railroad cars or highway overpasses. The city of Amarillo has expanded so much that the art that was once in the middle of nowhere is now ironically in the middle of modern day strip malls and road work designed to bring humans to neighborhoods that are cropping up like flowers after rain on a desert landscape. We almost drove past the scene because we expected it to be in a more isolated part of town. It has become a kind of freak show of sorts, as tourists park by the side of the road and walk to a gate beyond which trucks sell food and drink. The Cadillacs themselves have become defaced over time with layers and layers of multicolored paint. One might say that it continues to be a work in progress.

Our next destination was to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, located just outside of Amarillo in a little town called Canyon. Decades ago we had attempted to camp in the park on a blistering hot August day. At that time the place was still quite primitive, and still mostly unknown. We pitched our tent in an area where we were virtually alone, save for the critters that were in abundance. A visit to the bathroom revealed strange insects of very sort, including huge scorpions roaming freely. When many of wild things began to invade the interior of our tent we gave up and instead found a room at a hotel in Amarillo, never really considering that we might one day be lured back to the spectacular place. 

On our return to Palo Duro Canyon we found a park whose facilities had been expanded to include hookups for recreational vehicles as well as tents. There were multiple camping areas that were filled with people and a very modern visitor center that provided breathtaking views of the canyon as well as historical information. 

We were enchanted by the majesty of the place and drove the length of the road that led deeper and deeper through the dusty red outcroppings and into a kind of reverential escape from the outside world. I would not be exaggerating to say that in many ways the canyon was like a natural cathedral where nature itself gives glory to the majesty of creation. We decided that it was a place to which we would most definitely return one day to spend some time listening to the wind whistling through the glorious setting that seems untouched by humans even as people quietly pitch their camps or hike along the trails. 

It was dusk by the time we returned to our RV park. A cool breeze greeted us as we settled into our trailer for the evening. This was our last outpost in Texas. We had already seen so many wonderful sights that we had never before taken the time to experience. In the morrow we would cross over into New Mexico and make our way to Albuquerque where we had almost as little experience as in the Texas towns that we had most recently visited. 

Ours was a grand adventure designed to find the offbeat, too often unexplored parts of America. We were purposely looking for quirky destinations, and beauty created by nature. So far we had been quite successful in our quest. We were learning that every place is interesting in one way or another. By moving slowing rather than blasting past at seventy five miles an hour we were really seeing the people and the landscape in ways that we had never before done. We were learning the value and importance of parts of our country that had always before been only markings on a map. We were learning about different points of view and different ways of living. Finding America was a glorious experience.  

They Try Harder

When I was a senior in high school Texas Tech University offered me a full ride scholarship. My mom could not imagine sending me so far away from home, and insisted that she would not allow me to accept the offer. Since I was still only seventeen years old I had to defer to her decision. Besides I knew nothing about the place, and did not feel drawn to attending school there.

Eventually I would quickly ride past the campus now and again on my way to some place else. For some reason I never really took enough time to learn more about the school, and so I remained mostly impressed. It was only when I took a group of students for an extended visit there that I began to see the university’s possibilities. My pupils and I were wined and dined by the administration, and I was quite impressed by the programs and financial assistance that they were eager to offer my kids. 

Still, it was a campus that was a long way from home. It had taken us almost thirteen hours to travel there in a drafty bus in the middle of winter. I’ve rarely been so uncomfortable in my life and somehow the thought of making that long journey back and forth for four years still felt a bit unsavory. My hesitation was challenged by an offer from the school to fly any of my students to and from the campus if they genuinely wanted to attend, and were willing to work hard to keep their grades in order. I was impressed by the school’s willingness to do whatever it took to recruit the best of my students. It reminded me of their earnest offers to me back when I too was deciding where to earn my college degree. it seems that Texas Tech genuinely wants to make it possible for any deserving student to attend, no matter what obstacles seem to stand in the way.

This past spring my grandson, Ben, decided to accept an invitation to attend Texas Tech. I was excited for him, but still a bit worried about the distance. I needed to feel better about how far from home he would be, so when my husband, Mike, and I were planning a vacation to the western reaches of Texas, we put Lubbock, the home of the university, on our route. It was indeed a long drive but a doable one nonetheless. What really sold me was a more intense examination of the campus. 

Texas Tech University has a beautiful design and an attention to detail that gives the entire place a welcoming feel. Ben will be majoring in Communications and the administrators wisely placed him in a dormitory directly across the street from the Communications building. He will be in a cohort of students with interests similar to his, and already counselors have reached out to him and to his family to insure that he feels welcome from the first day he arrives. 

I got a very positive feeling as we drove and walked around the sprawling complex. It is like a little city in and of itself. Best of all it is an incredibly friendly place. Everyone seems to want to talk and be helpful. The whole place reminds me of those old Avis rental car commercials that assured customers that the company would always try harder. Since Texas Tech has often been in the shadows of the two biggest state schools, The University of Texas and Texas A&M I think they realize that they have to go an extra mile to attract students. The long distance from so many parts of Texas only adds to their need to offer something a bit more than students might get elsewhere. I get the idea that that something is personalization.

While Texas Tech University is quite impressive, the city of Lubbock itself is rather underwhelming. It does not have the charm of Abilene or the things to do found in Waco. It feels as though Lubbock would be just another small town were it not for Texas Tech. it actually reminds me of some of the small suburban towns that encircle the metropolis of Houston. It boasts many of the same stores and a similar vibe. For some that might actually be an attraction. I know that many today enjoy a slower pace of living and Lubbock certainly has that, at least until the students arrive each fall.

i recall a time many years ago when we were passing through Lubbock on our way to Durango, Colorado. We stopped early one morning in a small cafe for some breakfast. At a table near us were three men all decked out in western wear, complete with fine leather boots and cowboy hats perched on their chairs. They were gentlemanly enough to know the importance of removing their hats inside, so I found myself straining to hear their conversation. They certainly had the classic west Texas drawl but their words would have been at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was apparent that they were discussing some fine philosophical point and that they were indeed professors enjoying a morning seminar of sorts before going to teach their classes. These were no ordinary ranchers or farm boys!

Lubbock is an interesting city. it is almost improbable given where it stands, but nonetheless a center of learning whose reputation only grows as time goes by. If you want to know about climate, or alternative energy sources, or agribusiness, or engineering or medicine, you might want to attend Texas Tech University. It is a place filled with possibilities because in itself it seems as though it should have been impossible. 

I feel good about sending my grandson to Lubbock. I even feel a bit of “what If” when I think of how I might have gone there. it’s obviously a place where good things are happening every single day. I’m glad we took the time to visit because I was able to see that there is a world of potential in being at a school where everyone seems to work just a bit harder to help young men and women achieve their dreams. 

The Blessing

Texas is a huge state, and much of it is filled with wide open spaces, especially in the western regions. The flora becomes sparse the farther west one travels, with on the fittest, toughest plants able to survive without intervention from humans. Water is precious and the fauna is wild and often lethal. It takes a special kind of spirit to tame the wildness where blistering heat and blizzards and tornadoes coexist in the same cycle of the seasons. Nonetheless there have always been adventurous souls who grow weary of the rush of city life and strike out in search of adventure and quiet. 

Thus it was with Charles William Post, an innovator who brought breakfast cereals to the tables of American households. Much like today’s barons of wealth, Post dreamed of creating new ways of living, and in that spirit he purchased a swath of land in west Texas, and built his own town which he not so humbly named after himself. His intent was to to create a utopia, and so he invested great sums of money in building sturdy and beautiful structures in his town. He hoped that Post, Texas would become the site for West Texas A&M. He dreamed of founding a kind of paradise in the desert that would attract thinkers like himself. Sadly, his efforts failed to take root in the ways he had hope, so now Post, Texas is just a small town on the road between Abilene and Lubbock. Often travelers simply whiz through on their way somewhere else, taking little note that it was once meant to be a kind of shangri-la. 

I might have been one of those people who hardly noticed Post were it not for the fact that one of my classmates from high school lives there. Dee Holland and I passed each other in the hallways of Mt. Carmel High School for four years. I noticed her because she was incredibly beautiful, vivacious and she had one of the loveliest smiles I had ever seen. She and I never had a class together save for the all girls religion class of our senior year. We each had our own little circle of friends, but the school was just small enough that everyone knew of everyone else in one way or another. I thought that Dee was delightfully full of life and I admired her from afar, but never got to know her very well. 

Facebook may have its flaws but when it comes to reuniting people, it does its job quite well. Once I had my own account I began to search for people with whom I had lost contact for many decades. Along the way Dee and I became friends in a way that we had never been when we were young. I liked her posts, her philosophies, her sense of humor and the evidence of her kindness. She became one of my favorite people, and someone I regretted not getting to know earlier in my life. Sometimes we would joke and “talk” late at night, and even though there was something unreal about our means of communicating, I felt more and more comfortable with expressing myself with Dee. 

I had joked that one day I might travel to Lubbock, and that I would stop in Post to have a real visit with Dee if I did. When my grandson, Ben, decided to attend Texas Tech in Lubbock this fall, I knew I wanted to see where he would be living for the next many years. We planned our vacation route with Lubbock as a destination, and I schemed to add a stop in Post to see Dee as well. 

I was thrilled when Dee said that she would be around when we passed her way. We agreed to meet at a local restaurant called George’s for lunch or brunch. We drove from Abilene in a driving rain that was perilous at times. There were moments when we literally could not see the road, but there was no place to pull over and stop, so we simply said some prayers and moved slowly forward with the other souls caught in the same storm. By the time we reached Post the clouds had lifted and the sun was shining. Somehow it seemed to be right in keeping with how Dee always made me feel whenever we conversed on Facebook. She has a way of shooing away the darkness and dreariness of life.

I saw Dee from across the room and she was as beautiful as ever. The smile that I remembered from high school was as lovely as it had always been. We talked as excitedly as two teenage girls, so elated by our reunion that someone might have thought that we had been best friends forever. I felt so comfortable and free to be with Dee. None of the teenage angst that we had both once endured impeded our joy.

My intent had been to treat Dee to lunch but she quite sweetly insisted that she wanted to welcome us to her home by paying for our meal. So we sat and talked a mile a minute while Mike just smiled and let us catch up on the fifty years that had passed since we were teens. It was magical for me because somehow Dee and I had a connection that had taken us to similar ways of thinking even as we had lived almost unaware of each other for so many years. I understood that we were kindred spirits who had traveled through the vagaries of life and somehow survived with our spirits intact. 

Dee gifted me with a pair of earrings that she had designed, a treasure that I will enjoy for many years to come. We hugged and said our goodbyes, but somehow I knew that our time together is not yet done. It’s a long way from Houston to Post, but I hope that we will meet again at George’s and I will have the opportunity to enjoy the company of Dee in person one more time. Our visit, though brief, was a highlight of my vacation, a time that I will always remember. Dee reminded me how so little matters other than the love we find with the people who pass through our lives. Such times are a blessing.