November 2, 2014
Some folks grow up in households of privilege where trips to the family cabin / ranch / lake-house are common. We had the next best thing: a family friend generous enough to invite us along to The Ranch. Now, The Ranch has a more formal name, but its legend and personal history are best distinguished by turning the general, specific.
A friend of my mother's married into a family that owned the Ranch, which is situated west of San Antonio - deep in the Central Texas Hill Country. I do not know how often we made the three hour drive out from Houston when I was a small child; the only visit that I clearly remember was in the 9 to 11 year old range, yet I am certain that was not the first.
A hunting/visitors' lodge and the Medina River were the twin foci of our time there. As I recall it, the lodge had a main building with rustic kitchen, dining area, and salon. There may have been some bedrooms attached to it. Going outside, one came to a two-story building - or perhaps two of them? - with guest rooms. After hearing that the other adults had found a large scorpion in their room, I had mixed feelings at finding nothing but a walking stick in mine*.
There was a lawn out back, which sloped gently and then precipitously down to the river, with a rock wall delineating the danger zone. In the evening, we could stand outside (tempting the mosquitoes), watch the fireflies, and listen to the neeker breekers and Eastern Whip-poor-wills. Neeker breekers, you ask? The name comes from a scene in Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, where the Hobbits encounter these insects. Well, The Ranch too has them: a mysterious insect of the woods, which alternates between the sounds "neek" and " breek."
The river is a classic of the Hill Country, carving out a 200 foot deep canyon, with its bed snuggled up to a mildly undercut limestone cliff. Being rather shallow at this stage in its career, wading and sitting down to splash in the water were easy and safe activities, so long as you didn't mind being nipped at by minnows. The rock wall was home to fossils and lovely fern-and-moss covered springs. The last time we walked down to the river, I stumbled across an unlikely pairing: armadillo scales and fur. Perhaps an armadillo and a raccoon or ring-tailed cat had been in a tussle.
There are other distinct memories of being there, but the overall sense of the place is what stands out most. It was wonderful and remote, and the first "wild place" to really capture my heart. Settings with that limestone topology and a mixture of oaks and junipers always bring me feelings of peace and well-being. As I meditate on the great privilege it was to have encountered nature in such a milieu, I wonder: do we have it in our collective capacity to find ways to make even a semblance of this experience more accessible, especially for kids in the city?
* I finally got my in-bedroom scorpion experience earlier this year. It was ever so exciting to find the two-to-three inch arachnid and escort it out the door at a lodge-hut in the middle of Belize.
* 30-40 year old photos courtesy of my parents.
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