By Michael Gos
There are two kinds of places in the world: those you drive through and those you drive to. No one ever just drives through Terlingua or Luckenbach. They are destinations. If you find yourself in either of these towns, it is because it is a place you wanted to go to. On the other hand, I regularly drive through Houston on my way to Big Bend or Hill Country, but I never drive to Houston. Nacogdoches is in that latter category. I have driven through it many times on my way to other destinations, but not once have I stopped. A friend who did her college years there calls it Naca-nowhere, and for more than 20 years, I treated it as such. But after a day at Mission Tejas State Park, with another at Caddo Mounds to follow, it was a convenient place to bed down for the night.
I suppose I could have done what most people do—stay at a Holiday Inn Express or a Motel 6, but if I had to be in Naca-nowhere, I figured I’d at least try to make some kind of an adventure of it. A couple of days before the trip I got on the Internet and found what looked like just the ticket—an old cabin deep in the woods built by Tol Barret, the man who drilled the first productive oil well in Texas (and only the second in the world—he missed being first on that count by just a matter of days). The Barrets lived in the house from 1848 till 1920. Today it is a B&B of sorts, but not in the usual sense.
When you rent the Barret house, you are there alone. There are no employees around to mar your tranquility. Breakfast fixings are placed in the refrigerator prior to your arrival, but when morning comes you have to cook them yourself. In fact, you don’t even see the management. A bill is left for you on the kitchen table and you leave your payment, either cash or check, on that table when you leave.
It wasn’t easy to find, especially in the fading light. A country road on the edge of town led to an old Jeep trail that went back about a mile into the woods. When we finally found the cabin we were out of daylight. We unloaded what we needed for the night from the Jeep. The rest could sit there. Who would be out here to steal it? Then with a sense of exhaustion, we sunk into the benches on the cabin’s front porch with beverages in hand. We were in dense woods with not another sign of human existence anywhere, no power lines, no road noise. The only sound was that of a few birds serenading the fading twilight. In our barely-above-a-whisper voices, we talked ourselves into drowsiness. It was barely 10 p.m. when we finally called it a night and went to bed.
I am an early riser, so at dawn I was back on the porch. I had hoped to take in the morning concert and the birds were certainly doing their part. Even the squirrels chirped along for rhythm. It was the perfect start to the morning—but it didn’t last. I’m not sure why it happens, but sometimes my thoughts just run wild with no recognizable pattern and with quantum leaps at inconvenient times to unrelated new thoughts. It’s like trying to follow a James Joyce or Virginia Wolff stream of consciousness novel. I tried to remember whether it was butter or margarine that would kill me this week, I tried to plan a summer trip that would take me outside of Texas for the first time in years, and I wondered why my second toes were longer than my big toes. (I know that doesn’t sound important, but after you have stubbed them for the 2,648th time, you think about these things.) Finally, I gave up, went back inside and cooked the enormous breakfast that came with the cabin.
We had planned a trip to see the Caddo Mounds that afternoon but after breakfast, we had a few hours available, so we decided that since we were here, we would take a look around town. The first stop was the arboretum and gardens at Stephen F. Austin University. It was a good choice; they were magnificent. I can only imagine what they look like in the spring when the hundreds of azaleas are in bloom. Then we drove around the old part of town to have a look at the grand old houses and neighborhoods. Along the way, we stumbled across a sign that said “Old University Building” and pointed to the left. I thought it was a part of the SFA campus and figured I’d have a look. As it turns out, by accident really, we had stumbled onto the site of the first college in the newly founded Republic of Texas. I was absolutely delighted when I realized what I was looking at. Being a professor, that probably had more meaning for me than for most people. But that tie to history, to education, to the days when Texas was a republic, had a haunting effect on me. I’d not had this feeling since that moment long ago on a train out of London, when I first saw the spires of the Oxford University campus. It was almost a religious experience.
As the mid-day approached, it was time to move on. We headed out to the Caddo Mounds site and spent a couple of hours there before coming back to town and a fantastic dinner at Clear Springs Café. What a day it had been. I realized that somewhere in the last 12 hours, I had changed my way of looking at Naca-nowhere.
That night, back on the cabin porch my thoughts went in a very different direction. This time the randomness was gone. There was no stream of consciousnessno James Joyce novel. I was focused on just one thing. I had seriously misjudged this town and, as a result, for 20 years I had missed the opportunities I found here this weekend.
And then I thought about all the other opportunities I may have missed in my life because of my hardheaded propensity for preconceived notions of this type. Were there places that could have been special to me? Were there people who could have been important? Were there experiences that would have been life-changers but never had a chance because I just blew them off? I can’t say that I recommend this kind of self-examination to anyone; the answers you get might be scary.
But there is always a bright side. Everything that happens, especially the unpleasant things, are learning experiences. I had a lot to learn from this weekend. In looking back now, I think I can more clearly see the lesson. In the time left to me, I suspect I will be far more open-minded about the places and experiences that present themselves. Will I drive to Houston? Probably not—for me it is still a place to drive through. But I’m pretty sure the number of places I drive to in my life will increase greatly. You can count on that.