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I’m sitting in my hotel room in Houston. Thanks to my dear friend Professor Caroline Crimm of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, I have just spent four days being treated like a queen here. I also have to thank Dean Jamie Hebert of the Department of Biology who provided comfortable lodgings and generous treatment in return for my coming to talk about Walking with Wolf with the biology students. I did my talk to a very small crowd, but thanks to the warm Texas hospitality, I leave with fond memories.
I am at the beginning of several weeks of book gigs, visiting friends and road-tripping through the west. Tomorrow I will fly on to Los Angeles, California, and spend a few days with my friend Terry who has recently moved there…and then start making my way north up the west coast, back to Canada.
It is bluebonnet and azalea season here – everyone tells me that I have come to Texas at the best time of the year. The weather is warm but not stinking hot as they say it can get. The flowers are beautiful – Lady Bird Johnson’s program from years ago of letting the roadsides fill with wildflowers is still evident. There are purple fields of bluebonnets (of the lupine family no doubt); undulating hedges of pink, purple and white azaleas; gardens of candy-colored gerberas and snapdragons….well, I may miss the tulips and daffodils in Ontario, but am being treated to all this floral beauty, Texas-style.
Caroline picked me up, introduced me as the “famous author” everywhere, made sure I was always comfortable, and took me out to restaurants that satisfied whatever craving I had. I have to speak up about a wonderful server we had in the Woodlands, just north of Houston – her name is Britney and she works at the Saltgrass Steakhouse. I love Costa Rica but wouldn’t say that restaurant service is always professional. The first night here in Texas brought me back to great service and this gal was truly a gifted server – friendly, informative, personal and appreciative – and after Caroline’s introduction – “famous author” – she was standing even tippier on her toes.
Besides my book thing, I followed Caroline around and saw how busy this award-winning professor, author, community-member, historian and human being is! She lectured, she moderated a Academic Challenge for area high school students, she participated in an interesting event called Poster Day – where faculty created posters about their research and displayed them in a conference room and then were present to discuss their areas of expertise with others. Caroline’s is about her most recent work in Monteverde, where she is doing research to write a history of pre-Quaker life on the green mountain, so I was her visiting poster-child, and we both talked about that community that we love so.
Caroline was the driver behind the reconstruction of a log building that is now a visitor center in the town square of Huntsville. She teaches courses that bring her students into the community to do service and to celebrate history. Her courses are hands-on, with students expected to dig in and get dirty – it was her and her students who rebuilt the log cabin. She has a room full of period costumes to use in local festivals, and a wall full of plaques in her office that express the appreciation of local communities for her enthusiastic involvement. Meeting Caroline has been one of the greatest pleasures of my last year. And now I’ve experienced her five star hospitality in the lone star state.
I arrived in Texas with a craving for red meat. A vegetarian for years, I no longer am, much of that due to the realities of traveling and living with people, and also sometimes my body craves it. As my time to go to Texas arrived, the cravings arrived. Caroline made sure I had some of that good Texas meat – and one of the highlights was the barbeque, a southern staple. In Huntsville, the big one is McKenzie’s, where the ribs were divine. We also picked up some ribs at what the locals affectionately call “The Church of the Holy Rib”, a funky family-run affair connected to the New Zion Church next door. I have to say the ribs may have been holy but not as divine, but the atmosphere was tops and the folks real nice.
The other thing that Huntsville is known for is its fine hospitality for prisoners. There are several prisons in the area. I think one of the oldest is the Huntsville State Prison, established in 1848 and still serving convicts all these years later, just up the road from Sam Houston University where Criminal Justice is their speciality. Locally known as “The Walls”, it was just next door to my hotel and hard to miss, though taking a miss on the inside tour is probably best. In my few days in Huntsville, I saw a lot of evidence of the prison system – the university had recruiting seminars going on in lobbies of buildings, anti-death penalty groups had events planned (because they still give a hang – is that a dang - in Texas) and I saw more species of police cars than you could imagine. But even the guard in the watchtower of “The Walls” smiled and waved as I took his picture – oh, those friendly Texans.
I’m not a shopper, but nevertheless went to a bunch of flea markets, antique stores and second-hand clothing shops, looking for used cowboy boots for my friend Lori back in Canada and myself. If you must go shopping while traveling, I think that visiting these kinds of stores is much more interesting than malls or chain stores whose merchandise is about the same everywhere you go. At least the used places give you a taste of what is, or was, local – they are like visiting small museums. So I’ve seen a lot of Texas charm, young and old.
The last day we went into Houston to the Live Oak Friends Meeting. As I said while introducing myself to the Quaker group, when I travel I’m not much interested in tourist attractions and souvenir shops. Instead I want to be immersed in the natural beauty of a place and meet the community. And I think visiting Friends meetings, where you always find wisdom, compassion, interesting conversation, and the existence of hope, is a much more valuable experience than any suggestion a tourism guide would give you.
I met some great people, sold a few books, and had a chance to sit in their beautiful meeting house, reflecting on my time in Texas, thinking about those I’ve left behind in Costa Rica, and those I’m headed to see on the west coast. I’ve a great appreciation for the warmth of the Texans, the beauty of the Texan springtime, and the generosity and friendship of Ms Caroline Crimm. Only sorry I didn’t get to go two-steppin’ – pero hay siempre la proxima. Girlfriend, may we meet again soon.