Double-Heading to Cheyenne

Union Pacific Steam Engines 4014 and 844 exit Weber Canyon, headed to Ogden, Utah (Bob Kise)

For three years, Union Pacific’s Engine No. 844 cooled its wheels in Cheyenne, Wyoming, undergoing a major overhaul in the company’s steam shop. The last of the company’s steam engines, produced in 1944 by the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York, the so-called ‘Living Legend’ never had been formally out of service, but age takes its toll, and the need for maintenance was obvious.

The locomotive began rolling again in 2016, traveling first to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and then to the opening of the Big River Crossing in Memphis. The Boise Turn Special, an eleven-day run to help celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Boise’s historic depot, took UP 844 over 1,600 miles of Union Pacific track through Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho.

Eventually, she traveled to the midwest, then on to Texas. Stops along each route allowed both dedicated railfans and the casually curious to see, touch, and hear an important part of American history.

Recently, UP 844 has been ‘double-heading’ — traveling in tandem with Union Pacific’s Engine No. 4014, affectionately known as ‘Big Boy.’ The pair made their way westward to Ogden, Utah to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, and soon will be back in Cheyenne. In the coming months, Big Boy 4014 will travel other parts of the Union Pacific system, allowing even more people to experience a piece of living history. That such a thing is possible — Big Boy back on the rails and able to tour the country– is something of a miracle.

UP No. 4014 leaving Evanston, Wyoming, headed to Ogden, Utah (Greg Brubaker)

During World War II, Union Pacific operated some of the largest and most powerful steam locomotives ever built. Known collectively as the ‘Big Boys,’ they were designed to solve a particular problem.

Seventy years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the mountains of Wyoming and Utah continued to confound Union Pacific. Moving heavy freight over the mountains often required multiple locomotives, which meant a need for more workers and more fuel. The climb over the Wasatch mountains between Ogden, Utah and Green River, Wyoming was particularly difficult. According to William Pearce:

The 176-mile stretch of track started out at 4,300 ft (1,310 m) above sea level in Ogden, climbed the Wasatch Range to 7,300 ft (2,225 m) at the Aspen Tunnel, and then dropped to 6,100 ft (1,859 m) at Green River. Occasionally, up to three helper engines were used to assist heavily loaded trains over the Wasatch mountains.

In 1940, the railroad’s mechanical engineers sought to solve the problem by designing a new class of engines which came to be known as “Big Boys.” Twenty-five were built, each measuring 132 feet long and weighing 1.2 million pounds. Because of their length, their frames were articulated, or hinged, allowing them to negotiate curves. Their wheel arrangement (known as a 4-8-8-4) included a leading set of four pilot wheels to guide the engine, two sets of eight drive wheels, and four smaller following wheels to support the rear of the locomotive.

After delivery to Union Pacific in 1941, UP 4014 joined the other Big Boys in helping to move millions of tons of war supplies. According to steam historian John E. Bush, “Without the Big Boys, the Union Pacific never could have moved all that material for the war effort.”

UP Big Boy 4012 hauling freight through Green River, Wyoming, November 1941
(Otto Perry image via Denver Public Library)

Union Pacific used the Big Boys until 1959, then replaced them with diesel-electric locomotives. Most were scrapped, but some were put on display: in St. Louis; Dallas; Omaha; Denver; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In 2013, Union Pacific announced that it had re-acquired a Big Boy from the RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona, California, and hoped to restore it for the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many expressed scepticism; even the machinery needed to create replacement parts would have to be redesigned and reconstructed. But in the end, the goal was accomplished, and UP Big Boy 4014 is rolling again.

During my childhood, I found the poetry and romance of steam enticing. In the classroom, teachers told stories of strong, indestructible iron horses, or taught songs about winsome little creatures called “pufferbellies.”

In my naiveté, I believed that pufferbellies were roaming our neighborhood, and thought I ought to be able to catch one — like a firefly, or grasshopper. One Sunday afternoon, I headed off toward the schoolyard, determined to find one of the creatures. Before long, my dad caught up with me and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”  “To find the pufferbellies,” I said. Silence billowed between us like steam. “The what?” ”The pufferbellies. We learned a song about them in school. I want to see them.”

He asked if I could sing the song for him, and I could. I remembered every word, and sang the first verse twice.

By the time I finished, he was laughing. “Sweetie, I know where the pufferbellies live. Why don’t we go see them?”

Later that afternoon, we bundled into the car and drove to a place he called the depot. At the depot, while people boarded trains for such exotic destinations as Des Moines and Omaha, we sat on a bench, waiting for a train to arrive. Hearing the low moan of the arriving train’s whistle, feeling the vibrations in the ground, and covering my ears against the sharp, steam-shrouded screech of the brakes, I came to a conclusion: real trains were far more exciting than pufferbellies.

Rock Island Depot ~ Newton, Iowa

I began riding my bike to the depot to watch the trains come in, and began reading the names on freight cars at crossings: Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Burlington; Great Northern; Illinois Central; Cottonbelt.

I learned new songs, sung by men with names like Boxcar Willie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The Wabash Cannonball, The Wreck of Old 97, and Paddy Works on the Erie weren’t pleasant fantasies; they were grounded in railroading as a way of life, celebrating the engineers, boomers and brakemen, switchmen, conductors, and engineers who worked the yards.


In time, I began walking the trestles with friends, shivering with anticipation and fear as we tempted the afternoon freight. Once, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, where the engines and their turntable delighted me. On road trips I begged my dad to race the Streamliners highballing along their glistening tracks, and in the rich summer nights I lodged myself between crickets and stars to hear  mournful whistles dissolving away into the dark.

Decades later, photographer and friend Tom Parker captured UP 844 rolling through Frankfort, Kansas on her journey south from Cheyenne to Harlingen, Texas. The Valley Eagle Heritage Tour, named for a popular Missouri Pacific passenger train which operated between Houston and Brownsville from 1948 to 1962, was a railfan’s dream.

Like a giant pufferbelly escaped from bonds of inattention and neglect, UP 844 was riding the rails of imagination as surely as her rails of steel. From the moment I learned she’d roll through Houston before heading southwest, there was no question I’d be at the stations, whistlestops, and country crossings to witness the historic journey.

UP 844 steaming through Kansas ~ Tom Parker

At a crossing southwest of Houston, waiting for one more glimpse of the great locomotive, I found myself pondering the world represented by an outdated but still compelling technology.

In that older world, the metaphor of the well-oiled machine still had force. In most occupations, skill and perseverance were more important than connections. Deals were sealed with handshakes, and a man’s word was his bond, rather than a contemptuous and cynical attempt to manipulate others.

In a world marked by divisions, it’s worth remembering that, for many railroaders, the only divide that counted was the Continental Divide: an obstacle eventually overcome by a Golden Spike of vision, foresight and ingenuity. Certainly manipulation and not a little greed were part of overcoming that divide. Nevertheless, five days after the spike was driven in 1869, passenger train service was instituted. Pulled by the astounding iron horses, people journeyed from Omaha to Sacramento in four days rather than four months, and they fell in love with their trains.

Today we travel faster, but I’m not sure we travel better. When those engines from an earlier time begin to move, people gather. They stand at crossings and linger at whistlestops, traveling miles beyond good sense to see a highballing steamer race across the prairie or idle at a switch.

Beyond the charms of retro technology, there’s a palpable sense of people wanting to meet people, to hear the whistle and feel the vibration: to reach across the years that divide us from our past in order to touch the steam, steel, and grit that made this country work and to witness the proof of a challenge well met.

As long as UP 844 and UP 4014 keep rolling; as long as the people who love and sustain them survive; as long as the whistles sound and the firebox glows, there’s railroading to be done. There are prairies to cross, and foothills to climb. There are mountainsides where the great, vertiginous sky reaches off to infinity; high plateaus where the winds blow free and a person can breathe in the air of acomplishment and history.

Children will love their pufferbellies, but railroading’s for grownups: for people willing to pick up and roam; to work beyond exhaustion; to trade security for freedom, and speak with integrity.

Of course there will be difficulties. No one wants to face the broken tie, the washed-out bridge, the screaming downgrade acceleration, or the jumped tracks. But ask any old-timer from Old Cheyenne — or anywhere else for that matter — and he’ll tell you it’s worth the ride. Today’s railroaders would agree.

Comments always are welcome.
Thanks to Tom Parker, Aaron B. Hockley, and Daniel Lipinski for images used in my video. Thanks also to Hal Cannon, the Deseret String Band, and Okehdokee Records for permission to use the group’s version of “Railroading on the Great Divide.” This previously published post was re-written and expanded to include some history of the Big Boys, and acknowledge the introduction of UP 4014 back into service.
 

Messages in a Bottle

Flannery O’Connor with editor Robbie Macauley in 1947 (Wikimedia)

Even among the literati, mothers can be difficult to impress. In a letter written to author Cecil Dawkins in 1959, Flannery O’Connor congratulated Cecil for being paid $1,000 for a story — a figure that more than doubled Flannery’s current top payment of $475. Somewhat wryly, Flannery added:

Your sale to the Post ought to impress your mother greatly.  It sure has impressed my mother, who brought the post card home. 
The other day she asked me why I didn’t try to write something that people liked, instead of the kind of thing I do write.  Do you think, she said, that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don’t write something that a lot, a LOT of people like? 
This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc.  All I can ever say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

I still laugh when I read that passage. Shortly after my first computer arrived, my mother began nosing around it like a wary dog circling a snake, asking questions of her own. “What are you going to do with it?”  I didn’t know, and said so. “Well, how much did it cost?”  I did know that. Despite reservations born of experience, I told her. The disapproving silence thickened. “You spent all that money for something, and don’t even know how you’re going to use it?” 

Clearly, she regarded my computer as nothing more than the newest version of the hula-hoop or Mr. Potato Head, and I was her idiot child, consumed with a child’s breathless longing to possess the same toys as my friends.

As the months passed and my mysterious toy began demanding ever more time, her perplexity increased. She’d come to understand the practicality of email and the profitability of eBay, but the hours spent on my new blog confounded her. “Why are you still on that machine?” she’d say, peering over the top of her knitting. “Who reads those things, anyway?  Why not do something productive?” 

Since she refused even to sit at the computer, I began printing out occasional blog posts for her to read. She’d murmur some nice, motherly compliment, but usually ended by asking the question that would have made Flannery O’Connor’s mother proud: “When is somebody going to pay you for all this?”

Equating dollars with quality is natural enough. The first and only local writing group I joined once published this food for thought in its newsletter:

“Never give your writing away. If you don’t receive payment, your writing is worthless.”

Everyone in the group believed that, and for months I fussed over the issue, unable to refute either the logic or the assumptions of members who kept asking, “When are you going to start doing some real writing?” The question of worth was everywhere, and many of us in an online writing group recognized the dilemma expressed by Becca Rowan as our own:

 I find it all too easy to sink into pessimism about my own writing. “What’s the point?” I sometimes find myself thinking. “Who cares what I have to say? Why bother struggling to find just the right word, to come up with the perfect idea, to create an evocative image?  What difference can it possibly make to the world?”

Reading Becca’s words, I sensed her effort was justified, as was mine.  I remained convinced  my writing was worth the hours stolen from sleep; the decisions to forego evenings out; the end of television and social media. I simply didn’t know why.

Eventually, I found the beginning of an answer in an off-handed remark made by a woman with decades of experience in the classroom. “Teaching is like throwing out words in a bottle,” she said. “Sometimes you’re lucky, and the bottle reaches shore.”

Her metaphor seemed apt: as much for blogging as for teaching. Like a message in a bottle, each post is tossed into the currents of the great cyber-sea to bob, tumble, and drift about until safely reaching shore, or being broken and destroyed on the rocks. 

For blog-bottle throwers, of course, letting go is everything. Whatever the content of the bottle’s note, its words and images will have no opportunity to touch people, to clear their vision, to bring comfort, to elicit a wry smile or a sigh of satisfaction until the bottle is set free to travel.

It does take time for bottles to bob their way to the beaches of the world.  It takes even more time for someone to find them, and sometimes it requires pure luck for the message to be plucked out and read. Today, I can’t help being amazed by how many of my own metaphorical bottles have been pulled from the surf and preserved in one way or another.

A woman in Salisbury who’d put her own writing on hold felt an implicit challenge in one essay, and began writing again.  A St. Louis executive found a lesson for the workplace in Godette’s choice of inspiration over competition.  Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head in Clarksdale, Mississippi reprinted some reflections on their Juke Joint festival in one of his newsletters. The Moon Lake Improvement Association included my story of a visit to Uncle Henry’s roadhouse in the history section of their site. An astronomer added The Comet Watchers to his links.

Each of these connections pleased me, but nothing represents the satisfactions of blog-bottle tossing as well as my experience with “Search Pattern,” a poem written in response to the death of Roger Stone.

Safety Officer aboard the sailing vessel Cynthia Woods during the 2008 Regata de Amigos offshore race from Galveston to Veracruz, Roger lost his life while saving five crewmates from death after their sailboat capsized.

He was well known in the local sailing community, and while I’d never met him, I was deeply affected by his death.  While the Coast Guard conducted their search and rescue mission, and during its sad aftermath, there was little else I could do, so I wrote a poem titled “Search Pattern.”

Due north from south
then south again
the heart flies,
anxious in its unexpected space,
winging over absence
with an osprey’s climbing curl,
unfettered but forlorn.
From east to west
frail rising hope streams light
across conviction’s shattered hull;
love’s fruitless oars, adrift
beyond this longing reach
float half-submerged,
splintered as the fragments of a dream.
What life remains,
preserved through night’s long tumult
to wash, exhausted, onto shore?
The osprey climbs.
The oars drift on.
The heart resumes its wheeling flight
due north from south,
then south again,
across a bowl of tears.

After writing and posting the poem, I moved on. Then, nine months later, I found this comment appended to the poem on its blog page:

Hi,
I am Roger Stone’s widow. I ran across this poem just now, and I want to thank you so much for it.  The introduction was so touching, too.  If I would have seen this before his service, I would have loved for you to have read it. 
I miss Roger every day, and seeing this at this time touched my soul. Thank you again.
Linda Stone

That she had found the poem at all, that she had been kind enough to comment, and that the one person I wished could read the poem had, in fact, done so seemed extraordinary. In the brief correspondence that followed, I gave Linda permission to use the poem as she saw fit.  At the time, she intended to enlarge and frame it, and then to hang it in Roger’s office in their new home – the office he never got to use.

Somewhat later, on the Mitchell Campus of Texas A&M University at Galveston, Linda Stone once again described events of that tragic day as she accepted the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal on behalf of her husband. The medal, established by Congress in 1874, is awarded by the Coast Guard Commandant to any person who rescues, or endeavors to rescue another person from drowning, shipwreck, or other peril of the sea.

Roger and his medal ~ U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Petty Officer Patrick Kelley

Watching Linda receive the award on behalf of Roger, envisioning my poem gracing the wall of the office he never used, and still astonished by her improbable discovery of my blog months after the loss of the Cynthia Woods, all I could think was, “Some worth can’t be calculated.”  

I still believe that. Not every cause has an immediate effect, and not every hour invested brings immediate return. Only a willingness to take the longer, less calculating view of things allows any artist to keep tossing bottles into the sea ~ bottles filled with treasure that one day, some day, will wash onto a receptive shore.

Comments always are welcome.

Sailing a Sea of Flowers

Rockport, Texas

As winter’s strong northerlies subside and seas become more predictable, boats along the upper Texas coast begin to move. After passing through Galveston’s jetties and leaving behind the freighters and tankers of the fairway anchorage, some turn left, toward Mobile Bay, the Florida Keys, or the tropical waters of the Bahamas. Others turn right, taking a south-westerly course along two hundred and fifty miles of Texas coastline: a course punctuated by a series of sea-focused and island-moored ports as different from Houston, Austin, and Dallas as you could imagine. Each port has its own personality, and each evokes memories from my own years of working and cruising along the coast.

My first offshore trip began in Freeport, an industrial town anchored by the largest Dow Chemical complex in the world. Only a few hours from Galveston via the Intracoastal Waterway, it provided an easy first leg for our cruise, and easy entrance into the Gulf.

As we left Freeport’s jetties at sunset, our intended destination was Port O’Connor, home to the Poco Bueno fishing tournament. Affectionately known as the Poco Loco, the tournament’s a yearly highlight in an area known for extraordinary fishing.  Port O’Connor’s also the gateway to a favorite anchorage at the Matagorda Island Army Hole, where a bold raccoon once boarded our boat and made off with every Pepperidge Farm cookie on board.

After weather forced us past Port O’Connor, we set a course for Port Aransas, the sole established town on Mustang Island. Accessible only by ferry, boat, or bridge, Port Aransas was significantly damaged during Hurricane Harvey, but rebuilding continues, and there’s no question the town’s growing popularity as a destination for foodies, crafters, birders, and cruisers will continue.

Thirty years ago, the town’s reputation was somewhat funkier and more laid-back. Populated by island lifestyle enthusiasts who weren’t always sure how to maintain their lifestyle, it became known as Hippie Hollow South: a tribute to a well-established Austin attraction. As the saying went, “Port A’s the Key West of Texas. Everyone wants to live here, but not everyone wants to work here.”

Lydia Ann Lighthouse ~ Port Aransas, Texas

In truth, the next port down the coast, Mansfield, probably bests Port Aransas when it comes to a laid-back approach to life. For decades its reputation has been summed up in its nickname: Port Mañana. A census-designated place with a population hovering around 226, it’s favored by fishermen more than sailors, although anyone cruising the length of the Intracoastal Waterway can stop there for enough fuel, ice, and beer to get them to Port Isabel, the last of the Texas ports along the coast.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve always thought of Port Isabel as the edgiest Texas port. Hearing her name, I remember the anxiety of being shadowed by another vessel on a long offshore run between Isabel and Galveston, not to mention a few minutes of panic after being stopped by the DEA just before entering West Galveston Bay.

In the end, the explanation was simple enough. Shipments of illegal weapons had been moving through Port Isabel, and as we tacked into strong north winds during our sail up the coast, our erratic course attracted the attention of the Coast Guard. After tracking us through the night, they  handed us off to the DEA agents who stopped and boarded our vessel.

Professional, and entirely pleasant once they figured out we weren’t gun-runners, they let us go on our way with a grin and a wave. Still, the thought that we’d been under surveillance for smuggling makes me laugh, and the memory of those undercover agents, Miami-Vice perfect as they lounged on their speed boat in muscle shirts and sunglasses, is delightful. Every time I hear Smuggler’s Blues, I think of them.

But of all the ports along the Texas coast, my favorite always has been Rockport. Named for a rocky ledge that underlies its shoreline and known for shoal water, it’s still a lovely cruising destination, with first-class marinas and a cluster of good repair yards nearby.

When an unfortunate encounter with Rockport’s skinny water led to the loss of a rudder, my appreciation for their repair yards grew exponentially. At the same time, being grounded in the Rockport-Fulton area — both literally and figuratively — allowed me to explore local attractions like the Fulton mansion, home to George and Harriet Fulton.

After George Ware Fulton married Harriet Gillette Smith, eldest daughter of Henry Smith, the first provisional governor of Texas, the Fultons and their children moved back to Ohio, then Maryland. In 1867 they returned to Texas, where Fulton founded the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company, a cattle operation, as well as helping to develop the towns of Sinton, Gregory, and Rockport. Their mansion, built between 1874 and 1877, was a bit of a marvel, with central heating and air conditioning, gas lighting, and indoor plumbing.

The Fulton family was large, and as civic-minded and generous as they were wealthy. Most are buried in the Rockport cemetery, but their simple and dignified markers aren’t immediately obvious.

Two of George and Harriet’s grand-daughters, Ina and Emma, died in childhood; Emma’s is the oldest marked grave in the cemetery.

Emma Fulton (1874-1876)
Ina Fulton (1880-1881)

In truth, the Fulton graves were a serendipitous find. When I heard from a friend that spring wildflowers were blooming in the Rockport City Cemetery, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to re-visit the Fulton mansion, to see how post-Hurricane Harvey repairs were progressing in the area generally, and to see more of our flower-rich Texas spring.

Given the four-hour drive to Rockport, I wanted to be sure the flowers hadn’t faded away, so I called the Chamber of Commerce. The woman who answered the phone barely could contain her enthusiasm. “Flowers at the cemetery?” she said. “Oh, my gracious. You must come! They’re past their prime, but they’re still lovely, and you won’t be disappointed. They’ve been so thick this year — like a sea of flowers.”

By the time our conversation ended, my decision was made. It was time to return to Rockport: not by sea, this time, but by land, in order to experience the Chamber of Commerce endorsed ‘sea of flowers’ for myself.

I wasn’t disappointed. The cemetery combined Rockport’s iconic, wind-bent oaks with a variety of flowers, including our beloved bluebonnets.

Everywhere I looked, bluebonnets lapped at benches and covered gravestones with great waves of color.

In other areas, bluebonnets gave way to phlox, wine cups, coreopsis and blue curls, as well as a few firewheels (Gaillardia pulchella) and lazy daisies (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis).

The blue curls were well past their prime and most were putting on seed, but I’d seen them only once in the wild, and was happy to encounter their lavender accents around the graves.

Winecups, coreopsis, blue curls, phlox ~ and that one white daisy
Blue curls (Phacelia congesta)
A bee curled over a blue curl

In an area of military graves, coreopsis and several species of plantain predominated. People will attack plantains with an enthusiasm usually reserved for dandelions, but allowed to grow and mature, they’re actually quite attractive.  I thought it interesting that so many Confederate graves also were marked with our nation’s flag.

A damaged, but not destroyed, marker surrounded by plantain, phlox, and coreopsis
Hooker’s plantain (Plantago hookeriana)
Thanks to Steve Schwartzman for encouraging a second look at what I’d previously identified as Heller’s plantain (Plantago helleri)

Everywhere I looked, a limited number of species combined in different ways, under different light, to create a kaleidoscope of colored patterns.

Phlox, bluebonnets, coreopsis, plantains, and prairie larkspur
White prickly poppy, coreopsis, and phlox

In the midst of so many familiar flowers, there were plants I’d never seen, like this prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum).

There were oddities, including a plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) paired with a natural variant I wish were a species. There’s already a propeller plant, so I decided to name this one the pinwheel coreopsis.

Was nature having fun?

One of the most striking plants I found was a large shrub or small tree with extraordinarily red flowers. Even though it’s not yet identified, it’s too pretty not to include.

Spicy Jatropha, or Peregrina (Jatropha integerrima)

As I wandered through the cemetery, one plant was noticeably absent: the Indian paintbrush. Once I realized they were missing, I searched more intently, but found no evidence of them. What I did find were yuccas, cacti, and agaves; combined with Mexican olive and desert willow trees, they gave the cemetery a piquant, south Texas flavor.

Charlie K. Skidmore’s family no doubt established the town of Skidmore, northwest of Rockport
The Skidmore plot was surrounded by beautiful yuccas
Mexican olive flowers drew pollinators of every sort

Looking again at the map of Rockport that sits atop this page, I hardly can believe that, for years, I passed within two blocks of the City Cemetery on my way to and from Key Allegro without realizing the cemetery was there.

Times and interests change, of course, and I’m certainly glad to have learned of its existence. I’m already looking forward to next year’s visit.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Selling Bill Buckley’s Boat

 

Ship-shape at the end of the day ~ Port O’Connor, Texas

More than a home, far more than a means of transportation, the cruising sailboat combines art and engineering, design and construction, ages-old tradition and modern efficiency, all in the service of joining sailors to the sea. Spend enough time with a boat, and you’ll soon gain the sense that, although she may not be human, she most certainly is alive.

For years that liveliness has characterized the relationships I’ve had with boats in my care. Moving about on their decks as easily as I navigate within my own home, I talk to them, occasionally curse them, and eventually come to cherish them.

Given time, I also learn their foibles and their faults. I know which toe rail wasn’t caulked properly during construction. I can point out the soft spot in the decking that indicates water damage, or the creased stainless steel railing that suggests someone arrived at the dock under less than perfect control.

Certainly damage to fiberglass, varnish, or sails keeps a lot of us in business, but every time one of my boats is damaged, it stings just a little. After Hurricane Ike, the sting was nearly unbearable.

Family Time had been lifted up by the storm surge and taken to the grass.

Tranquility crossed a parking lot, then came to rest against a palm tree.

Dockmates Coral Caye and Muriel June survived hours of hitting against one another, with significant, albeit repairable, damage. Legacy, badly bruised, didn’t require a trip to the boatyard, but Gemini had gelcoat issues, and required weeks in the yard to dry out.

Treena simply disappeared, and never was found. Though not precisely lost at sea, she most assuredly had been struck by the hand of the sea.

Of course there are other ways to lose a boat, and over the course of years I’ve seen them all. Poor navigation brings an encounter with the rocks; poor maintenance results in a trip to the bottom. From time to time, customers load their boats onto trucks and take them overland, to other ports of call.

Oddly, of all the ways to lose a boat, selling seems especially painful. When the decision to sell comes as a result of ill-health, changed financial circumstances, or the increasing limitations of age, ambivalence usually makes the process both long and difficult, no matter how small the boat or how prominent the sailor.

I still remember the day I learned Bill Buckley would sell his boat.

For years I’d been dipping intoThe National Review, the journal of conservative thought William F. Buckley, Jr. founded in 1955, and watching his appearances on television’s Firing Line. Throughout those years, Buckley’s lectures, columns, and books made him ubiquitous; whether you agreed with him or not, he couldn’t be avoided.

In the course of being exposed to his opinions, I developed one of my own. Buckley, I decided, was both insufferable and brilliant. Acerbic and bold in his writing, a polemicist at heart and not much given to the sort of subtleties designed to deflect criticism, he wrote like a painter wielding a palette knife: laying on vocabulary, subjunctive clauses, and parenthetical phrases until his meaning began to sink beneath layers of language. Often, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I kept reading and listening.

His distinctive enthusiasms and joie de vivre certainly helped to increase interest in politics and campaigns, drawing in people who might otherwise have remained disengaged. During his 1965 candidacy for mayor of New York City, someone asked Buckley what he would do if he won the election. True to form, he dead-panned, “Demand a recount.”

But Buckley was more than a political iconoclast and sharp-witted pundit. A dependable friend known for unfailing graciousness and wide-ranging interests outside the political world, he was equally well-known as a sailor and lover of the sea.

Like critics in the political realm, sailors often regarded him with disdain. His was the world of yachting, with all the class distinctions that yachting implies, but it was part of the package you had to accept — or at least tolerate — if you were interested in Buckley as sailor.

His first boat was the result of a deal struck between father and son after Buckley’s father decided, in 1938, that he and his two sisters should be schooled in England for a year. Given the strength of Bill’s opposition, his father finally resorted to a little bribery, promising his son that he could have a sailboat when he returned to the States.

As Buckley tells the story, he named that first boat Sweet Isolation as a tribute to his father’s political leanings at the time. It was a 17′ Barracuda class sailboat, and Buckley raced it with all the passion of a Whitbread competitor. Years later, he caught sight of a 1930’s America’s Cup J-Boat, and the slide down the slippery slope began.

In 1954 he became the owner of The Panic, a Dutch-built steel cutter. After nature did her worst to that boat, he moved on to a Sparkman and Stevens Nevins 40 named Suzy Wong. Suzy eventually gave way to Cyrano, a beautiful but extraordinarily large schooner which cost so much to maintain — even by Buckley’s standards — that he came, as all sailors do, to his final boat: the Patito The Spanish diminuitive for duck, Patito happened to be the pet name Buckley and his wife used with one another.

s/v Patito ~ AFP photo, Martin Bernetti

Eventually, the day came to release even Patito.  One circumstance led to another until, as Buckley put it, “the joys of ownership  began to be overcome by the pains of possession.”  In an essay about the decision-making process published inThe Atlantic, he added, “When such things happen,  one can either putter on – or quit.”  His decision was to quit, but, being William F. Buckley, Jr., that was not quite the end of the story. 

With Buckley, no opinion came without added reflection, and his reflection on the decision to sell Patito was especially poignant:

So, deciding that the time has come to sell the Patito, and forfeit all that, is not lightly done, and it brings to mind the step yet ahead, which is giving up life itself.

Eleven years ago, that “step yet ahead” was taken, and decades after I first read Buckley’s words, his voice was silenced. When death comes to a person long admired but never personally known, an individual whose presence loomed large for decades while shaping the lives of innumerable strangers, the experience of grief can be as surprising as it is real.

Combing through the columns and op-ed pieces written after Buckley’s death, reading and listening to the stories and memories shared by those who knew him best, I came across Peggy Noonan’s contribution in the Wall Street Journal, striking in its simplicity and continued relevance:

With the loss of Bill Buckley we are, as a nation, losing not only a great man.  With Bill’s passing,  we are losing his kind — people who were deeply, broadly educated in great universities when they taught deeply and broadly, who held deep views of life and the world and art and all the things that make life more delicious and more meaningful. We have work to do as a culture in bringing up future generations that are so well rounded, so full, and so inspiring.

Perhaps inevitably, Buckley died at his desk, still working vocabulary, phrases, and clauses into his unmistakable prose, even as he contemplated the nature of the path he was traveling.

Thinking about Buckley and Patito, I realize there will come a time in my own life when the boats must be let go: when for one reason or another it will be time to stop puttering, and move on.  When that time comes, and the decision to “forfeit all that” brings to mind an inevitable future, I suspect Bill Buckley also will come to mind: a memorable model for considering all such next steps with courage and grace.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Searching For Texas Treasure

Cutleaf grape fern sporangia

During a late autumn trip through Arkansas’s Ouachita mountains, I stopped at a scenic overlook to enjoy the sunset. As I stepped out of the car, I nearly demolished a plant unlike any I’d ever seen. No more than a few inches tall and without any apparent foliage, its slender stalks bore what I assumed to be seeds. Round and green, they looked like English peas, or thin strings of grapes.

Once back in Texas, I began searching for information about my Arkansas oddity. Thanks to Sid Vogelpohl’s article for the Arkansas Native Plant Society, I learned that I’d stumbled across a cutleaf grape fern (Sceptridium dissectum). The fern appears in late summer to early fall, produces a solitary frond, and is named for its round, clustered sporangia, which do resemble a bunch of grapes. Intrigued, I posted about the fern on Lagniappe, and continued searching for information.

Eventually, I learned that grape ferns also are native to Texas, although they’re confined to the eastern part of the state. Nacogdoches County, one of ten listed as a location by the USDA, was close enough to warrant exploration. Narrowing my search, I discovered the fern included in a 1999 checklist of vascular plants inventoried at Nacogdoches’ Tucker Estate, now part of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center.

Although I’ve evacuated to Nacogdoches during hurricanes and pass through the town occasionally on my way to visit relatives, the existence of the  Native Plant Center surprised me, as did the existence of a wildflower demonstration garden there. Promoted by Lady Bird Johnson and named in her honor, the garden grows more than a hundred plant species native to east Texas.

As I read about the Plant Center’s history and about the work taking place at Stephen F. Austin University’s Mast Arboretum, I was equally surprised to find that both institutions have been deeply involved with three rare Texas plants: the Neches River rose mallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx), Texas trailing phlox (Phlox nivalis spp. texensis), and a beautiful white flower commonly known as Winkler’s Gaillardia, Texas white firewheel, or Winkler’s blanket flower (Gaillardia aestivalis var. winklerii).

Despite my affection for Gaillardia generally, and my familiarity with the unusual colors it can produce, the thought of a rare white blanket flower astonished me. Clearly, it was time for a trip to Nacogdoches.

Arriving at the Native Plant Center, I first asked a pair of young men if they knew where I might find the cutleaf grape fern. They pondered, then pointed to a booted woman pulling a red wagon filled with plants and plastic pots. “You need to talk to Dawn,” one said. Eventually, I learned the woman was Dawn Stover, the person responsible for herbaceous plant collections at both the Mast Arboretum and the Plant Center, as well as for their horticultural greenhouse facilities.

When I asked Dawn if she knew where, or even if, the cutleaf grape fern still grew on the grounds, she wasn’t certain. She thought it might be growing somewhere in their forty acres, but she couldn’t take me to a particular site.

“Well,” I said, “do you happen to know if there are any of the Winkler’s Gaillardia still blooming?” Her eyes lit up, and she grinned. “I can show you some,” she said. “They’re over here.” In less than a minute, we were standing in front of several beds filled with beautiful flowers.

Winkler’s gaillardia flower and seed head

As I began photographing the flowers, Dawn explained the history of the Native Plant Center’s work with them, and her own development of a color form with purple rays and dark centers. A few of the purple flowers still were blooming, but given my love of white flowers, the native seemed far more attractive.

Endemic to Texas, Winkler’s Gaillardia grows only in Hardin county, with some occurrences reported in Tyler and Newton counties. Seeing them at the Native Plant center had been delightful, but the experience left me determined to see them in their native habitat: the sandy soils and pine-oak woodlands of East Texas’s Big Thicket. I soon learned that the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary — a 5,654 acre Nature Conservancy site located between Kountze and Silsbee — provides habitat for Winkler’s Gaillardia, as well as for the endangered Texas trailing phlox and a beautiful scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata).

The Sanctuary, a combination of swamp, open-floor forest, and southern pinelands, is rich in plant and animal species, and serves as part of a comprehensive effort to protect and restore the longleaf pine ecosystem on the west Gulf coastal plain.

A bit of luck allowed me to make contact with Shawn Benedict, superintendent at the Sanctuary, and he graciously offered to spend some time with me when I arrived. I thought I detected a bit of amusement in his voice when he said he was certain he could help me find some white firewheels. He had reason to be amused; he already knew what I discovered only after I arrived. Scattered throughout the pine and oak woodlands that stretched into the sanctuary, the gaillardia were plentiful and obvious: some still in bud, some in seed, and others in full bloom.

Winkler’s gaillardia bud

After we admired the flowers, Shawn provided a brief tour of other Sanctuary highlights, and then went off to other things. For two more hours I wandered the trails, amazed by the variety of plant life. In that world, so different from the coastal prairies I’m most accustomed to, I wasn’t able to identify many of the plants fading away in the late October sunlight. But finding the Winkler’s Gaillardia had been my goal, and I’d succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings.

At the grand opening and dedication of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Demonstration Garden on April 8, 2000, Lady Bird herself was able to attend. After the festivities, she wrote a letter of thanks to David Creech, co-founder and for several years co-director of the Plant Center, including these comments about the luncheon decorations and the gifts she received:

I especially loved the wildflower table arrangements and little pots of Winkler’s white firewheel. Tomorrow, the men will plant my white firewheel, and I can’t wait to see the beautiful rare blossoms grow in in my very own yard! Thank you so much for your generosity in allowing me to take enough for the ranch, my house in Austin, and the Wildflower Center!

Lady Bird is gone now, of course, but the rare flower she loved continues to bloom in her gardens, at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center, and in the sandy soil of an east Texas preserve. When early summer arrives, I’ll be searching for it again. This time, I know where begin.

 

Comments always are welcome. This piece originally appeared on the Native Plant Society of Texas website, and has been slightly edited.

The Poets’ Birds: Geese

White-fronted geese (Anser albifrons)

Named for the distinctive white band that surrounds its bill, the white-fronted goose commonly is known as the specklebelly, thanks to dark brown or black patches and bars that mark its breast. Not readily apparent on the ground, the ‘speckled belly’ becomes obvious when the bird takes flight. Given its pinkish bill and orange legs and feet, it’s not a hard bird to identify, but this small flock flying above the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge was the first I’ve seen since coming to Texas.

Specklebellies nest in the high Arctic before following the Mississippi, Central, and Pacific flyways to wintering grounds in California’s central valley, the Mississippi alluvial plain, or the marshes and wetlands of coastal Texas.The birds often mix with snow geese, or fly with assorted species of ducks; in other photos of this group, a few northern shovelers can be seen.

Decades before I experienced great flocks of geese of any sort, I became entranced by Frankie Laine’s “Wild Goose,” a song released in 1950. I drove my mother to distraction by playing their 78 rpm recording of it again and again, thrilled by the thought of flying with the geese.

“Wild Goose” ~ Frankie Laine

I suspect few remember Frankie Laine today, but his metaphorical goose remains a part of our culture, thanks to Mary Oliver. One of her best-known and best-loved poems, “Wild Geese,” celebrates that same harsh and exciting call: perhaps inviting new generations to follow where the wild goose goes.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Making a Run For Mardi Gras

Le Capitaine and his Chicken

In 2012, not long after I’d written a thing or two about chickens, a friend from Louisiana emailed a suggestion: “Cher, you want a complete chicken experience, come to Cajun country for Mardi Gras. They dance for chickens over here.”

As proof, he sent along the trailer for Pat Mire’s documentary, Dance for a Chicken. After watching with a certain degree of astonishment, I tucked the link into my bookmarks and resolved to make my own run to the Louisiana prairie to witness the celebrations.

For two years, I remembered the email only after it was too late to make plans, but in 2015 I remembered, and made some inquiries. A few phone calls later, I had the name and address of a Church Point family willing to host a visitor from Texas. I called another friend who lives down on the bayou and said, “Pack your bags. We’ve got chickens waiting for us.” Continue reading