Step aboard a boat docked in any of the marinas clustered around Clear Lake, loose the lines, find the channel, and soon enough you’ll be edging into Galveston Bay.
Whether the Bay’s your destination for a day sail or the first step on a longer journey – to Galveston itself, or to the open doorway of the Gulf of Mexico – you’ll have plenty of company. Second only to Florida in terms of boat sales and with one of the largest collections of pleasure craft in the country, someone around the lake always is getting underway.
Most of the boats you’ll see are documented or registered in Texas, although craft from Florida and Louisiana are well-represented. Thanks to Delaware’s more relaxed attitude toward documentation and taxes, you’ll often see larger and more expensive vessels with Wilmington or Dover listed as hailing ports. Now and then a cruiser from the East Coast or Caribbean will tie up on a transit pier, alongside sailboats from Half-Moon Bay or the San Juan Islands.
Occasionally, there are real surprises. One day I noticed a large, handsome trawler with a hailing port of Oxford, Mississippi painted on its stern. Any city or town with a zip code can be used as a hailing port, but still – given what I knew of Oxford, it caught my attention.
Located in the red clay hills of northern Mississippi, Oxford’s tucked into the Holly Springs, Grenada, and Lisbon geological formations, a land characterized by high rolling hills, deep, densely wooded ravines and river bottoms. The hills mark the very edge of the Appalachian range as they rise up from plains to the south. With its own collection of hills, pines and red sandy-clay soil, Oxford seems the very definition of “inland”. Certainly, it’s better known for R.L. Burnside’s style of blues than for boating. There’s no ocean access for deep-draft sailboats, and even Sardis Lake is better suited for fishing boats than the near-yacht that proclaimed Oxford its home.
One day I happened to be working near the mystery boat when its owner came strolling down the dock. Deciding a little chat was in order, I walked over to visit. “Are you really from Oxford?” I asked. “Well, yes and no,” he said. “I live in New York, but I registered the boat in Oxford because I’m from Yoknapatawpha County.”
After I stopped laughing, I looked at him and said, “Faulkner fan, huh?” Indeed, he was. He’d been reading and studying William Faulkner, one of Oxford’s most famous residents, since his youth. I love Faulkner, but the fellow knew Faulkner’s work so deeply and so well there was little chance of ending the conversation after a polite minute.
We spent the next hour talking about the Snopes clan, revisions in the transcript of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the importance of time and memory in his work, Quentin Compson and Yoknapatawpha County itself, the place created and meticuously mapped by Faulkner as a setting for his work. It was a delightful conversation, and it raised memories of my own first trip to Mississippi.
I had been to Oxford – and thus to Yoknapatawpha County - only once. During my first year of college, my parents suggested I choose a summer vacation destination. Knowing it might be our last vacation together, they wanted it to be special. I’d begun reading Faulkner, and the decision required no special thought. Oxford, Mississippi was my choice. Bemused but willing, my folks agreed. When the time came, we gathered up a few maps, a book or two, and headed off. My parents may have been on vacation, but I was a pilgrim, bound for my personal holy land and filled with all the fervor that pilgrimage entails.
When we reached Oxford, the first thing I wanted to see was the house. It was 1965, just three years after Faulker’s death. While the Chamber of Commerce probably understood the value of Mr. Faulkner to their town, things weren’t always obvious. We drove around a bit, trying to find Faulkner’s home, and finally pulled into a gas station to ask directions.
Two boys who appeared to be of high school age were working the pumps. “Say,” my Dad said, leaning out of the car window. “Where can we find William Faulkner’s house?” The first fellow stood for a minute, then turned and yelled to his pal. “These folks here’re lookin’ for Bill Faulkner. You know ‘im?” The second boy gave it some thought and then said, “Bill Faulkner? Can’t say as I do. Don’t think he trades here, anyhow.” Pointing roughly in the direction of the square, he said, “You might try up there.”
Eventually, we found the house. Whether the boys ever figured out who Bill Faulkner was, or whether he’d bought gas at their station, I can’t say.
Remembering the experience now, the irony is delicious. Three years after Faulkner’s death, a couple of kids working the pumps at a gas station less than a mile or two from his house didn’t seem to have a clue about their town’s most famous resident. Forty-five years later, a man from New York registered his boat in Oxford, Mississippi solely in order to anchor himself in Yoknapatawpha County, a purely “literary” construction if ever there was one.
For at least that one boater and for a multitude of readers, the fictional world Faulkner built became as real as the house in which he lived, and Yoknapatawpha County as familiar and accessible as Oxford, Mississippi.
I suspect Faulkner would have delighted in it all – the oblivious boys, the passionate fan and the conflation of two quite distinct Mississippi worlds. Some might argue that of course Oxford and Lafayette County are more “real” than Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha. I might say so myself, but I might not. After all, as Faulkner himself so famously said, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”