Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The tale of the tumbleweed chaser

Pecos, Texas, sunrise, when the tumbleweeds awake.

By Felix Carroll

Oh, yeah, I have to leave a note. Can’t forget to leave a note. It’s 4 a.m. My wife and boy are sleeping. I’m out the door to catch a flight to Texas. The goodbyes were said the night before, but still, you got to leave a note — just a little parting wave, something for them to wake up. So I write:

I love you guys. I’ll be back late Saturday night. Really, really late. So late it will probably be Sunday.
P.S. Henry, I’ll try to catch you a tumbleweed.

Then I was out the door and driving down the dark, deserted early morning roads to the airport on my way to a four-day business trip. This was a few weeks back. It was only when I had gotten on the plane and settled in that it had dawned on me I had just promised to try to bring my 9-year-old boy back a tumbleweed.

It had been an off-cuff-thought just to make him smile. Texas=Tumbleweeds to a 9-year-old who lives nowhere near Texas. In our children’s books and popular myths we seem to agree it’s best not to equate Texas with fearsomely expanding suburbs, conspiracy-laden rightwing talk radio and the death penalty. I, too, prefer the cowboy-tumbleweed version of Texas. And I also always prefer to leave my boy with the impression that when I’m away, I am on intrepid quests in mystical lands. He doesn’t need to know I’m probably staying at a Comfort Inn off the Interstate and have just eaten at Red Lobster.

As far as he knows, when I was in Florida last year I was dodging alligators. Or when I was in Chicago, I had walked up the 400 gazillion steps to the top of the Sears Tower. Or when I was in Buffalo, I had seen a man go over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel. Or when I was in Ohio, I was — well, actually, I couldn’t come up with anything interesting for Ohio, and I bet you wouldn’t be able to, either. I think I just shook my head wearily and said to him, “Akron: I hope, Son, you’ll do everything in your power to avoid ever having to go to Akron.”

But here’s the thing: In Texas, I really did catch him a tumbleweed. I did. Really. I was way out in west Texas where they really do have cowboys and you hear the plaintive sounds of ghostly freight trains and where pump jacks bob up and down like stationary carousel horses. A stop sign really was shot full of holes. Letters on the welcome sign of Pecos really did creak in a pounding wind, and behind that, the spooky gnarl of desert brush covered up a yellow billboard that said, “Remember to Keep Holy the Sabbath.”

I couldn’t believe it. Just when I had surrendered to the notion that Texas had been covered in a burnt crust of sameness, I’m proven wrong. To be in Texas and see a tumbleweed was like being in Alaska and seeing an igloo, or being in Kansas and seeing a farmer in overalls staring blankly toward the horizon while holding a pitchfork.

I wanted to keep the tumbleweed a surprise and not say anything. How I imagined it was that my boy would wake up Sunday morning and find me sprawled out downstairs on the living room couch, my face all scratched up, my shirt torn, and I’d have a tumbleweed triumphantly there at my feet. But I couldn’t contain myself. I had to call home at once and tell them.

“You really caught a tumbleweed?” my wife said.

“I did!”

“You did?” my boy asked.

“I really did! It’s right here in the back seat of the rental car. I’m looking at it right now!”

I had been traveling a cinematically, John Ford-like long and lonely stretch of desert highway when the tumbleweed crossed my path like a prison fugitive. They do tumble, by the way. They tumble like they’ve grown tired of trying and have given up. I pulled the car over and cornered it against a barbed wire cattle fence.  

At the airport, I dumped some of my clothes from my backpack to make room for the tumbleweed, and I got it through security, no questions asked.

“What is a tumbleweed, anyway?” my boy asked me back home as we marveled at it. I didn’t really know, so we looked it up. It’s a dead thing that’s not really dead. It comes loose from its roots and lets go in the wind, and, amazingly, if it comes to a stop in a wet area it will absorb water and drop seeds and spores from which breed new life. Something like that. Maybe I’m supposed to formulate for him some sort of spiritual lesson to be learned from a tumbleweed’s hard-bitten life and death and the resurrection in the baptismal waters of the desert. But I can’t come up with anything that makes enough sense right now.

Right now, I’m just psyched that I captured a tumbleweed and brought it home — even though as it sits on my living room shelf it looks like something purchased at Pier 1 Import