The Ghosts of Camels Past – Part I

The Camp Verde Store ~ Then

Like donning a pair of well-worn boots, easing into rural Texas elicits sighs of pleasure. Scuffed in places, streaked with mud, even a bit run-down about the edges, the place is comfortable — often more functional than stylish, but not given to pinching the soul.

Over time, you discover that slipping into country life requires little more than a willingness to slow down. After leaving efficient but nerve-wracking interstate highways behind, I met the world’s most dependably satisfying burger in tiny Center Point, served up under a sign that read, “This is not Houston. This is not Dallas. We don’t do fast. We do good. Your choice.”  

It’s still the world’s best burger, and I still make the choice to stop every time I’m in the neighborhood. Then, hunger sated, I turn south and west, passing the fire-ravaged hay barn that lives only in memory; the determined Norfolk pine; the chickens and guineas ranging along the edge of River Road. Where frayed and fraying ropes hang like pendulous vines from swamp-worthy cypress, young boys swing out across the water, shrieking with delighted fear.

Though tempted to stop, to risk everything for one ecstatic arc across the Guadalupe, I turn away from the river, choosing instead to traverse the low-water crossings of Turtle Creek.

Even when the crossings are dry, flood gauges belie the serenity of sun-warmed rock and gurgling, placid water. The creek can run hard, fast and deep as many rivers. When I find it in flood, I’m forced to turn, to retrace my route, to improvise. Moving up and around the ever-steepening hills, I cross one ridge and then another, descending at last to the nearly hidden and unmarked turn onto narrow, rutted caliche: my way through limestone and cedar into the silence of the valley.

Up on the ridges, sight is everything, and realtors sell the view as much as they do the house. But in the valley, it’s sound which enlivens the day and limns the contours of the night.

The rough starting cough of a chain saw; the faint polyphony of bees worshipping before mountain laurel; the sharp, upward cry of a suddenly plunging kestral: all are familiar, but none communicates the essence of “country” (or the comings and goings of neighbors on the ridge) more dependably than the percussive slap of a screen door.

Cabins and houses aside, the best doors along the Bandera Highway may have been those at the old Camp Verde store. Combining a final, substantive Thwack! with an assortment of sproings, whines, flutters, and squeaks, the doors never failed to amuse. Given their entertainment value, it was worth pulling one open a time or two, simply to hear it close.

If you had the time and needed a break from antiquing, or fence-pulling, or bike-riding, you could stop at the store, pull an old-fashioned soda in an old-fashioned glass bottle from the ice-filled, old-fashioned washtub, then settle in to listen to the doors’ thwack and sproing as old-fashioned cowboys passed by, touching their hats in gestures of respect: as if it were their sole pleasure in life to greet you before picking up their mail.

Then, everything changed. Traveling from Bandera one day, I decided to stop at Camp Verde and purchase a drink at the store.

To my confusion and dismay, the old General Store seemed to have disappeared. The only building visible from the road, a great heap of Hill Country limestone, was surrounded by manicured grounds and a huge parking lot. It might have been an expensive Kerr County home, or a shop designed in the style affectionately known as Faux Fredericksburg.

The Camp Verde Store ~ Now

Doubling back, I parked and began to explore. Thanks to a marker placed next to the front doors by the State Historical Society, I knew I’d  arrived at the Camp Verde General Store and Post Office, but the old general store I’d known and loved had been renovated, transmogrified, spiffed up, or destroyed: depending on your point of view.

In lieu of thwacks and sproings, the heavy wood and glass entry doors closed soundlessly. Railings and landscaping militated against porch-sitting. The newly-added restaurant was beautiful, with an appealing menu, but the tin wash tub filled with ice was gone.

On the other hand, it was clear that the new owners of the store, San Antonio-based Camelot Hills Group, LLC, had taken substantial care to connect the new, glizty retail space with the building’s history and the local community. Donated hats and boots — many inscribed with signatures and well-wishes — line the walls.

Furnishings from the old store have been utilized everywhere: old counters and bins restored and rearranged to showcase new products.

The store’s collection of vintage advertisements delights the eye.

The post office endures, as well. Some of the original boxes share wall space with newer versions, but if you look closely, you can see the mail that’s been tucked into old and new boxes alike. Despite the changes, those gallant cowboys still come by to pick up their bills and advertising circulars.

To be sure, store shelves are stocked with the same upscale merchandise found in any Texas boutique — scent diffusers, high-end purses and kitchenwares, jarred candles, hand-painted bluebonnets. If you need deer corn, a come-along, or steel chain, you’d best head elsewhere.

On the other hand, purchases at Camp Verde are tucked into lovely bags, with lovely ribbons added by request.  Every bag carries the historic name, as well as the date of the store’s establishment.

It’s a memorable logo, but if you’re not from the area, or not familiar with Texas history, you might ask, as did one bemused customer, “What’s with the camel?”

Clearly, the camel is integral to the store’s marketing plan. It’s on a sign facing the road: vibrant and appealing.

Camels plod along stair railings, and peer at customers from behind the counters.

On a balcony, a stained glass version longs for sunlight to enliven its colors.

And on the front lawn, tucked between the store and Verde Creek itself, Arthur keeps watch: his presence a reminder of the role played by Camp Verde in one of the quirkiest episodes in U.S. military history.

Established as an Army post in 1855,  Camp Verde was surrendered to the Confederate government in 1861, re-occupied by the United States in 1865, and finally abandoned in 1869.

During the camp’s brief existence, it grew up around the Williams Community store: a precursor to the Camp Verde Store, and an establishment whose primary business seems to have been selling liquor to soldiers.

The men of Camp Verde might have been forgiven their desire for drink, since their camp had been declared headquarters for a caravan of camels, sent their way in 1856 by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.

Camp Verde, 1861

Before going over to the Confederacy, Davis unsuccessfully pitched camels-as-transport to the Senate twice in the early 1850s. Then, in March, 1855, while serving as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, Davis found a way to fund his camel experiment. He attached a $30,000 rider for camel purchase and transport onto a bill meant to fund road and bridge repair in Illinois.

 THIRTY-THIRD CONGRESS, SECOND SESSION— Chap. 169. Sec 4.

And be it further enacted, That the sum of thirty thousand dollars be, and the same is hereby appropriated, to be expended under the direction of the War Deparment in the purchase of camels and importation of dromedaries, to be employed for military purposes.

Approved March 3, 1855.

Over the next two years, as questions arose over the progress of the project, a second resolution was passed.

IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES. February 2, 1857.

Resolved, That the Secretary of War be directed to furnish the Senate with any information in his possession, showing the results of the trial of the camel as a beast of burden and for the transportation of troops; and showing, also, the characteristics and habits of the animal, and the number imported up to the present time.

The entire record of the correspondence has been preserved online, along with this cover letter:

War Department, Washington, February 24, 1857.
Sir: In compliance with the resolution… I have the honor to transmit herewith the correspondence and reports of the officers charged with the purchase and importation of the camel, and its employment for purposes of transportation in the military service of the United States, together with the information obtained from persons who were considered the best authority as to the general characteristics and habits of the animal.
Under the appropriation of $30,000, made on the 3d of March, 1855, seventy-five camels have been imported. The aid furnished by the Secretary of the Navy in the use of a storeship returning from the Mediterranean greatly reduced the cost of transportation, and enabled the department to introduce a much greater number of camels than was originally calculated, and has secured to the government the means of making the experiment upon a scale which will sufficiently demonstrate the adaptation of the animal to the climate and circumstances of our country and its value for military purposes.
The limited trial which has been made has fully realized my expectations, and has increased my confidence in the success of the experiment.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, JEFF’N DAVIS, Secretary of War

The first shipment of camels arrived at Indianola in the spring of 1856: only a decade after that community’s establishment at Indian Point, and thirty years before the port’s disappearance in a second, lethal hurricane.

Thanks to experienced handlers, the camels survived their voyage to Texas remarkably well, and no doubt moved inland more easily than did the German immigrants who preceded them. But their arrival at Camp Verde was only one moment in a long and remarkable saga: one stretching from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to Persia, to the wilds of Los Angeles.

As events unfolded, there would be other curiosities, including the Brush Arbor Apparition, and the Red Ghost. But those are different tales, for another day…


For background on the Texas port of Indianola and its role in early immigration and trade, please see Winds of Change: The Travelers.
Comments are welcome, always.

Knowledge and Love

The Big Green Guy ~ Photograph by Steve Schwartzman
(Click image for greater size and clarity)

This two-inch marvel, munching away on a guara leaf and clearly unwilling to interrupt his meal in order to tidy up for the camera, has been tentatively identified as the larva of a white-lined sphinx moth: Hyles lineata. Scientific classification aside, he’ll forever be known to me as The Big Green Guy, a pet name I gave to him when we were introduced.

The first time I saw the creature, I dissolved into giggles. His vulnerable chubbiness, his tiny, multi-purpose feet, his air of concentration, his apparent lack of embarassment at being revealed as a messy eater: all evoked a response of absurd protectiveness.

Unable to help myself, I emailed his image to friends. Without exception, they reached the same conclusion: “It’s a caterpillar.” “Yes,” I said. “It is a caterpillar. But it’s not just any caterpillar. It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland, let-me-look-you-in-the-eye-and-ask-you-some-questions caterpillar.”

Not everyone found the Big Green Guy so appealing. After I purchased and hung a print of his photo on my wall, a neighbor said, “You might as well have mounted a collection of cockroaches.”

But a long-time friend saw what was coming and asked, “When is he going to show up in your blog?” Surprised by the question, I asked why she thought I’d be writing about him. Her answer told me something about myself, and something about my writing process. Before I share that answer, a little context is in order.

In February of 2008, The Task at Hand still was being developed. Consumed by the mechanics of setting up a blog page, I’d not given a thought to my first post. That would come later, near the end of April.**

While I prepared for my move to WordPress, I continued to participate on another site. It was a friendly and supportive community, where many of us enjoyed talking about writing: what we were doing, what we hoped to do, what we were frightened to death to begin.

One evening, a friend made a request that surprised me. Her nephew had decided to begin writing, and she was curious: what advice would I offer about how to proceed?

At the time, the thought of offering any sort of “writing advice” seemed presumptuous and absurd. I knew next to nothing about writing, and said so. Still, it seemed as though it could be an interesting exercise, especially if I kept a copy for future reference. Now, after seven years, I find myself in general agreement with the advice I offered then:

… Everyone has opinions about what constitutes good writing, and plenty of people think they have the how-to-write secret. But there are things I believe which I don’t often hear said, so I’ll jot those down, in no particular order, and you can do with them what you will.
1. Pay attention to the world. Listen to people. Nurture a sense of curiosity. Open your eyes to what is. Don’t be afraid to look at harsh or unpleasant realities.  Writing about something doesn’t mean you have to live it.
If you must write about yourself, get a good distance away and judge yourself with a stranger’s eyes and a stranger’s severity. To put it another way, there’s such a thing as too much navel-gazing, even if you have a really cute navel.
2. Choose a congenial genre as a starting point. If you despise science fiction, writing science fiction isn’t going to be very satisfying. If you have shelves full of poetry, you might try your hand. If a novel seems overwhelming, a short story or essay might feel more manageable.
3. Write about what interests you. If you’re not interested in your subject, you’ll give up, write poorly, or bore yourself to death.  A bored writer will lead to bored readers  — unless the reader’s smart enough to stop reading.
4. Figure out where you come down on issues of money and publishing. Being paid to write is not a bad thing. Writing only to be paid can lead to difficulties. See #3.
5. Cherish details. Use your descriptive powers. Be specific
6. An important corollary: know what to leave out. Be ruthless. If it doesn’t fit, set it aside for later use.
7. The basics are important. Build your sentences carefully, understanding their structure. Know the rules of grammar and be able to follow them. Collect words like a painter collects brushes and colors, and learn how to wield them. Get a firm grip on the rules, so you can break them with confidence.
8. Read incessantly, but learn to write by writing, not by reading advice columns.
9. Don’t be afraid to think, and don’t parrot writers who seem more popular. You speak your own word by thinking your own thoughts.
10. Finally: write, and let go. If you’re happy with what you’ve produced, enjoy it. If you’re not satisfied, there’s always tomorrow, and the chance to try again.
As for criticism, take it in and consider it without becoming defensive or anxiety-ridden. Believe in what you’ve written as least as much as you trust what others have to say about it.

Reading through the list, I’m most intrigued by one piece of counsel I didn’t offer: today’s ubiquitous advice to “write what you know.” It isn’t bad advice, but even seven years ago it seemed somehow lacking.

After all, when I began this blog, I knew nothing of Yoani Sanchez, Charles Torrey Simpson and his Janthina janthina, the Tallgrass Prairie, the relationship between Suzanne Verdal and Leonard Cohen, the spot where the Southern cross the Dog, maritime law, the double exposures of Ansel Adams, Nora Sweetland’s sculpture, or a multitude of other curiosities which found their way into my posts.

In each case, the process was the same. A bit of life caught my attention; I became curious; curiosity transformed into interest; then interest led to research, writing, and increased knowledge. Still, it took my friend to point out the obvious. More often than not, I begin not by writing what I know, but by writing what I love. Since I clearly had fallen in love with The Big Green Guy, his appearance here was predictable.

In every era and across a multidude of disciplines, writers have made the same point.

On January 30, 1852, Henry David Thoreau wrote:

Do nothing merely out of good resolutions. Discipline yourself to yield only to love; suffer yourself to be attracted.  It is vain to write on chosen themes.  We must wait till they have kindled a flame in our minds.  There must be the generating force of love behind every effort destined to be successful… The cold resolve gives birth to, begets, nothing.

The naturalist John Burroughs echoed Thoreau’s insights in his essay titled “Science and Literature”:

There is no literature or art without love and contemplation. We can make literature out of  science only when we descend upon it with love, or with some degree of emotional enjoyment… Honey is the nectar plus the bee, and a poem, or other work of art, is fact and observation plus the man.
Our best growth is attained when we match knowledge with love, insight with reverence, understanding with sympathy and enjoyment; else the machine becomes more and more, and the man less and less.

Less measured than Thoreau and Burroughs, but making the point in his own, inimitable way, Ray Bradbury said:

If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.
I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

Even the estimable E.B. White was willing to say, with typical conciseness:

All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.

Understood from White’s perspective, love for a corpulent, greens-eating caterpillar doesn’t seem particularly absurd. Besides, other caterpillars have had their stories told, so there’s always a chance The Big Green Guy will have his story, too.

**I first posted on April 19, 2008. With seven years gone, and no seven-year itch, we may be good for another seven.
Comments are welcome, always.

One Stitch at a Time

Joe Cunningham, Quilter

As far away as the days of dial-up connection and overly-enthusiastic “You’ve Got Mail!” messages can seem, I remember them well.

Partly because of my age and partly due to circumstance, I’ve never used a computer at work or in school. By the time I graduated from high school, the IBM System/360 was around, but it wasn’t meant for home use. Thirteen years later, I entered graduate school just as the Apple II entered the world: still, notebooks, pens, and typewriters remained my tools of choice. Ham radio and aerograms connected me to the States during my years in Liberia, and as for varnishing — no one needs Excel spreadsheets or Word documents on the docks. (more…)

Says Who?

Four months old, she was on the run, and desperate. Leaping from a seven-year-old’s casual grasp, she headed for the shrubbery, fueled by adrenaline and pursued by three equally adrenaline-addled boys. The spreading clump of holly, prickly and stiff, might have saved her, but she chose the ligustrum: a bush good for privacy, but no protection at all against determined hunters.

Cornered between cedar fence on one side and brick wall on the other, her only means of escape had been blocked by the boys. In a frenzy of excitment, the youngest plunged beneath the ligustrum. Managing to grab onto her tail, he pulled. Hard.

It was a mistake. (more…)

The Great Graham Cracker Miracle

First Methodist Church, Newton, Iowa

What John and Charles Wesley would have thought of my youthful Methodism, I can’t say.

To be frank, I’m not certain I knew during childhood that John Wesley had a brother. I loved hymn-singing on Sunday mornings, but it was years before I realized that Charles Wesley had written most of my favorites.

I certainly didn’t know about the history of the denomination, the doctrine of prevenient grace, or why our Greek revival building looked more like the town bank than any of the other churches in town.

I only knew that our church was comfortable, and well-suited for children. No one had to force us out of bed on Sunday morning in order to force us into a pew; we suffered no nightmares because of Jonathan Edwards-style preaching. In spring, we played tag or jacks on the church’s broad, sun-warmed steps. In winter, we sneaked into the kitchen to filch coffee hour cookies: then ate them, giggling, in the narrow, hidden passageway leading to the dome.
(more…)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,115 other followers