I’ve spent the last few days running around my old home town, taking pictures and scribbling notes, overtly to document scenes in some of my stories and to refresh memories I rely on for my fiction, but also, I admit, just to relive some of my childhood. It’s a weird feeling, really, because I spent so much of my adolescence and even a lot of my young adulthood disparaging this town and region, complaining of the staunchly conservative folk who live here, or of the absence of any worldly culture, or simply of the oppressively hot, humid weather (of which we’ve had plenty this trip!). Yet, in the face of how much has changed around here in the last decade or so, I have been forced to look beneath the surface of the Texas Hill Country to find what I remember, and in doing so, I have uncovered a lot of charm I had, as a teenager and young college student, refused to acknowledge: the folksy simplicity and quiet pride of heritage in the people here, the unique and unexpectedly varied history and artistic culture of the region, and the fun of the surprise summer shower rolling over the scraggly hills.
Also, in noting how much has changed around here, I have realized how much I remembered — and apparently relished — from my childhood, because the Texas I write about in my fiction is always the Texas of my youth. The other day, I ventured down into the woods behind my parents’ house to relive some of the hikes that informed my long novella about two boys spending a summer in the woods, and I had to search hard to find those memories under the changed terrain and through the new neighborhood construction. On various drives through town I searched for businesses and homes and even streets that feature in various short stories, only to find the businesses and streets changed, or gone. And yesterday, driving up to Kerrville on an impromptu trip, I toured my old campus — which makes an appearance in the story I’m working on now — and stopped at the bridge over the Guadalupe in Center Point — which provides the final scene in what is probably my best story — and I found both wildly altered.
The bridge was almost unrecognizable, and if anyone were to visit it looking for the final scene in my short story, they’d likely drive over it and move on, searching for the bridge I describe. It’s no longer there. In fact, the bridge as it appears now renders the final scene in my story impossible, which was at first a bit annoying. (If anyone asks, that story is now officially set “in the past.”)
My old college campus, though, is a different matter. There are certainly a lot of changes, with a huge new student center, a new welcome center, and a large new science building, as well as a massive building (I’m guessing a dorm) currently under construction. Yet when I reached the heart of campus — which, to my great relief, is still the old academic building and the library — I found very little changed. The quad and its surrounding buildings, like squat brick professors paternally but benevolently overseeing their students, looks so precisely as they did a decade ago that when I posted the new photos of them online, a former classmate thought they were old photos.
I am reminded of Tom Franklin’s essay, “The Hunting Years,” with which he opens his debut collection of short stories. In it, he returns to his old stomping grounds in the woods and swamps south of Mobile, Alabama. He had gone there to revisit some of the scenes in his stories, seeking fresh details to enliven and finalize his fiction. Instead, he encountered a man with a rifle, warning him off a public trail so the man could hunt in peace. This begins a reverie for the South that Franklin remembered, one in which hunting was a communal, not a solitary, event — a South in which friendly manners were more important than private land. Yet he, too, found less changed in his South than in himself, and he was not only able to access and use the details from his old home area in exactly the way he’d hoped, but he also was able to see his South in a new light, through a fresh perspective, in a way that lent his fiction greater depth.
I have to admit that some of this trip back to my own hometown, I modeled after Franklin’s journey home. I, too, hoped to find new details and refreshed memory. But I also knew, from Franklin’s essay, that other possibilities existed, that new opportunities might present themselves. I might have thought that knowing — and expecting — such an outcome would have prevented it, because I shouldn’t be able to recreate what was for Franklin a spontaneous and unexpected realization. But such is the depth of the Texas Hill Country, that even knowing what I’m looking for, I can find surprise and insight nonetheless.