Mexico or Bust (via Texas)…


Autumn has arrived here in the north. Did you know that Prague is farther north than Winnipeg, Canada? Well, it is, by just a tad. Prague’s latitude is 50.0833° N and Winnipeg’s is 49.8994° N. Which explains why our temps are now in the high 40s at night and will peak in the mid-70s today.

So the sun is shining and the weather is lovely and all’s right with the world.

Except for the packing.

I love going places but moving is work. And Katka and I are moving at the end of the month, headed toward Mexico again, via Texas.

This will be the third time for us to live in Mexico. It will be my fourth time because I also lived there for several years before I met Katka. That was back in the late 1990s, before I moved to Prague. I lived in San Miguel de Allende, a town in the mountains about 175 miles northwest of Mexico City. It’s a fascinating place, an old colonial town with a very long history. It’s also an artistic community with quite a few resident expats from Europe, Canada and the USA.

San Miguel is an easy place to live, as I learned in the 1990s. So that’s where Katka and I set up our household during our previous stays in Mexico. To return there will be a sort of homecoming.

Anyway, back to packing. Which I do tend to avoid. Even talking about it feels a bit like a chore. Packing up your belongings to relocate is when you discover what a pack rat you are. It’s also when you discover all sorts of stuff you’d set aside to attend to later. Things to read, notions to follow up on. You discover things you’d saved for the time when you’d need them, an occasion that never arose. And also stuff you’d lost, or thought you had lost. Aha! There’s that discount coupon I couldn’t find a while back… like a year ago. And of course it’s expired.

But I’m rambling. You see? That’s what moving does. It’s disorienting. One becomes more easily distracted. Staying focused gets harder. Because packing for a big move creates a kind of chaos.

Naturally, one looks for ways to escape the craziness. Writing this blog entry is an example. I haven’t written for my blog since May. So why do I choose to do so when I’m supposed to be packing? It’s an escape!

But only temporary. Because by September 30 everything that doesn’t fit into two trunks for the airplane must be ensconced in our rented storage space. Katka also gets just two trunks for her things-to-carry. So that leaves lots of stuff to store. And, of course, to pack.

A piece of good news in all this is that I’m no longer paying monthly rent on two storage spaces. We also have stuff stored in Texas, you see. That’s stuff we will carry with us to Mexico. And until recently I also had a storage space in Paris, France, full of books. Hundreds of books. Thousands. But I hauled all those to Prague, and when we leave Prague we’ll have just the single storage space, the one here, because we’ll empty the storage space in Texas. For a gypsy like me, having just one storage space at a time instead of two (or even three) represents a kind of progress.

Listen to me. I am rambling again. And I haven’t even mentioned Texas yet.

When we fly out of Prague on October 1, we’ll land in Texas. And we’ll be there for most of October. There’s family to see, and friends to catch up with. Also, Katka is commissioned to build an outdoor sculpture in Austin, so we’ll be there for a while, maybe a couple of weeks. I also might have to fly out to Los Angeles during October to do some screenwriting work. But barring that and other unforeseen events, we intend to hit the Mexican border at Nuevo Laredo by November 1.

As on our previous journeys, we’ll drive down. We hope to make the drive in Rambeaux, my 1986 Dodge Ram pickup truck. He’s been taking me south of the border—and all around Mexico—since my first stay there, and I’m hoping he’ll be up to another expedition. (See my previous blog entry below, dated May 2, for more about Rambeaux.)

After we cross the Rio Grande, it’s a long trek south across a high plateau of rugged desert and dry mountains and cactus, what some might call a bleak landscape. But it is also beautiful. About 550 miles below the border, we’ll hit San Miguel de Allende, tucked into the highlands at an altitude of 6,200 feet.

Once we arrive, we’ll stay with friends while we look for a house to rent for a year or two. We’ve been lucky in that regard previously, having found suitable places to rent very quickly, and I think our luck will hold. I suspect we’ll be in our new home in Mexico by November 10 at the latest.

Because San Miguel is located so far south—at a latitude of 20.9142° N, comfortably within the Tropic of Cancer—the weather will still feel like autumn when we get there.

And we will immediately do the exact opposite of what we are now doing. That is, we’ll unpack. Which is, as everyone knows, a lot more fun than packing.

Rambeaux: a tad fickle but holding strong…

Rambeaux in Mexico, 2011.

My 1986 Dodge Ram pickup truck—the aging Rambeaux—sits at my buddy Fred’s house in Texas most of the time. When I show up stateside for a visit, as I recently did, I renew Rambeaux’s registration, make sure he’s inspected and insured, and rely on him to get me around for a couple of weeks. If it’s one of those trips where Katka and I head down into Mexico for a year or two, I depend on him even more.

You might say Rambeaux is for me what Rocinante was for Don Quixote—a noble steed, a bit beyond his prime, but still reliable.

I bought Rambeaux from friend John Yearwood back in 1996 for $1,800. That was 17 years and about 130,000 miles ago. And he’s still got legs. He must be the best bargain on a ride I ever got.

Rambeaux has taken me deep into Mexico at least a dozen times, including trips into the Copper Canyon and all around the Yucatan Peninsula and down into Chiapas to the Guatemalan border. He carries a low cover over his bed and sometimes I park up under the jungle canopy and crawl inside to sleep for the night. He’s also hauled me all over the western U.S., including several months in the southwestern deserts of Arizona and Utah.

But after all these years, Rambeaux is showing some wear and tear that worries me a bit. Over time, I’ve replaced parts of him: alternator, radiator, starter, solenoid, muffler and tailpipe, brake pads, various hoses and belts, battery (several times), and of course tires. Several years ago, in Mexico, I put in a rebuilt transmission. Once in Arizona, when I was low on money, I had to borrow a library book on carburetors (1986 was the last year Dodge put carburetors in its trucks, switching afterward to fuel injection), and by carefully following the instructions, I took the carburetor apart to clean out the fine desert sand that had sifted inside. It was quite a chore. But I even got it put back together without any pieces left over.

Considering the tough demands I’ve put on him, Rambeaux has held up well. He’s suffered only one minor traffic accident. That was in Mexico and it twisted his front bumper to the pavement on the right side. I had to bend it back up to drive away. He managed that mishap without missing a step. I think he’s much like the bionic Six Million Dollar Man, only a lot cheaper. His air conditioner never has worked.

Whenever I show up with Rambeaux, certain folks invariably ask me why I don’t get a new vehicle. They think I should sell him or trade him in, that he’s just too old. Any ride that age has got to be unreliable, they say. And probably unsafe.

That attitude strikes me as awfully cold-hearted. What sort of person ditches an old friend just because he’s getting a bit stiff, a little fickle, and sometimes need professional attention?

Last month, during my most recent trip to Texas, Rambeaux served me admirably. He only quit on me twice, and one of those times he started right up again after half an hour and ran just fine. No explanation, though it happened in the middle of a huge rainstorm and I figure he simply felt too soggy to run and needed to rest for a while. I certainly recognized the feeling.

The other time he quit was a bit more serious. But he did have the foresight to do it right on the outskirts of Tyler. That’s up in northeast Texas. I was on my way to Jefferson to visit Kathy Patrick and the Pulpwood Queens Book Club. That’s another story and maybe I’ll tell it sometime. The main point is, my good buddy Randy Mallory lives in Tyler and he came to our aid. We were able to get Rambeaux to Randy’s mechanic, Bruce McDow over at the Firestation Service Center, and Bruce fixed us up in short order. Turns out there’d been a short in the electrical system and a couple of wires burned through causing the voltage regulator to melt down. That poor voltage regulator looked like one of those clocks in a Salvador Dali painting.

In the end, I lost about four hours of travel time. And it cost me about $150. But as anyone knows, that’s a very low price for recovery from a breakdown. I figure Bruce was a Good Samaritan doing a generous deed for a stranger from out of town. He and Randy rescued us like they’d been planning for it all along.

Rambeaux finished the rest of my stateside trip without a hitch. Well, his windshield wiper motor did freeze up, so I had to use Rain-X to get through a shower or two. And his right headlamp eventually went out after that earlier rainstorm but that was easy to fix. Those are the sorts of things that can happen to any ride at any time and you just have to expect them. Anything made in a factory breaks now and then, that’s a fact. It’s explained somewhere in laws of thermodynamics, I believe. So I didn’t take it personally, and neither did Rambeaux.

Still, now that I’m back here in Prague and Rambeaux is parked at Fred’s house in Texas taking a long rest, I’m wondering whether he’s up to another long trip down into Mexico. Katka and I are thinking of going there later this year. Come this autumn, should I ask Rambeaux to cinch up and get ready? Would that be asking too much of my faithful friend?

After all these years and all our adventures, it would feel strange to be down there below the border without him. I recall once in Chiapas, when we were traveling to San Cristobal de Las Casas and were snaking our way up a jungled mountain road, how we came around a sharp bend to find more than a hundred rebel Zapatistas holding machetes and blocking the road. Most steeds would’ve turned right around at that sight. They’d have fled. But Rambeaux just kept moving forward to see what the ruckus was about. That kind of fortitude would be awfully hard to replace.

Gone to Texas … the Institute of Letters

Woody Allen famously said he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him as a member. I’m not that picky, but I’m not really a joiner, either. I belong to very few self-identified groups. PEN International, the writers’ organization that promotes freedom of expression and literature around the world, is one of them. The Big Thicket Association, an environmental advocacy non-profit trying to protect ecologically sensitive land and water in East Texas, is another. I contribute to a few other non-profits and probably am counted a member of them by default, though I don’t actively participate in the groups’ business.

All that said, I am very pleased to have been recently elected a member of the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL). One doesn’t apply for membership to the TIL. One is inducted to it. A writer is selected to belong to the TIL based on literary achievement. In short, it is an honor to be invited along.

And I do feel honored, very much so. And deeply appreciative. While any writer wants his work to be appreciated by readers, it is especially gratifying for his work to be recognized by his colleagues in the writing craft.

If you go to the web page of the TIL, you’ll learn that the group’s purpose isn’t merely to bestow honors, of course. The page says, “The Texas Institute of Letters is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to stimulate interest in Texas letters and to recognize distinctive literary achievement.” The TIL also gives awards for published works each year and, in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin, supports the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program for writers.

Those are great causes, in my view, and I’m very happy to be able to support them now as an official member.

One result of all this is that I’ll be hopping a plane here in Prague and traveling to Texas for the annual TIL conference on April 5-6. I don’t think there’s a special ceremony for inducting a new member, but the weekend meeting is being held in San Marcos this year and there are several events to which I’m looking forward. Among them is a Friday evening reception hosted by the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. The superb Wittliff Collections is home to the literary archives of many TIL members.

When I heard about that event, I decided to take a look at just who belongs—and has belonged in the past—to the Texas Institute of Letters, which has been around now for 80 or so years. What I learned is properly humbling. There is J. Frank Dobie himself, and Roy Bedicheck, Horton Foote, Molly Ivins, Bill Brett, James Crumley, Fred Gipson, and Larry L. King. There’s John Graves, Bill Moyers, Larry McMurtry, James Lee Burke, Pete Gunter, Francis Abernathy, and Leon Hale. Wonderful writers, all of them. And the list goes on and on, among them fine writers I am pleased to call my friends, including Jan Reid, Kip Stratton, Debra Monroe, Joe Lansdale, Gary Cartwright… well, I just can’t list them all, there’s too many and I’ll surely embarrass myself (or insult a good friend) by leaving someone out.

As I look at the schedule for the upcoming activities, I’m especially pleased to see that my friend Stephen Harrigan, a wonderful writer of novels, essays, magazine pieces and screenplays, will be the recipient of the Texas Institute of Letters’ 2013 Lon Tinkle Award for Excellence in Lifetime Achievement. Well done!

So, I am excited. And honored. And gratified. Thanks to all my readers, and thanks to all my brother and sister writers. Everything we do is based on those simple signs we call letters: the alphabet. And that’s what I think of when I think of the Texas Institute of Letters—an organization based, ultimately, on crafting the letters of the alphabet to tell stories. And that is, indeed, a club to which I am very proud to belong.