“Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.
Traveler, the path is your tracks. And nothing more.”
XXIX, Antonio Machado
We made the drive in September, the beginning of the season when day slips early into dark. My husband Ron says that fall is the time when the older folks in the Texas Hill Country pass away, and the death in autumn of his father, two uncles, and an aunt lent support to that belief.
We’ve taken the route dozens of times over the past 20 years, through small west Texas towns, skirting farm and ranch land now stressed by drought. This time, instead of our usual visit to family, we made our way to say goodbye to Ron’s mother, Alta Wilhelm.
Over the years, the road and the destination helped my mind birth stories. The rolling hills covered with cedar inspired Guadalupe of the Angels, a novel set in the turn of the 20th century about the friendship of two farm girls, one Mexican and one white, one the daughter of landowners, the other of sharecroppers. Along with travels through East Texas, the landscape of the countryside about an hour north and west of San Antonio easily places me in a world of 100 years before.
As we approached our final destination, the weight of sadness fell slowly, a vague feeling in the quaint German town of Fredericksburg that thickened the closer we got to Kerrville, the town where my husband Ron was born and where his mother had died just a few days before. Mundane places along the road—grocery stores, diners–melded into recollections of the past and acted as reminders of what would never be again.
My mother-in-law, Alta, the epitome of a homebody, set out in the 1940s for Washington, DC., and as part of the Women’s Army Corps, was posted in the US capital. There, Alta served as a cryptographic technician, a decoder stationed in the Pentagon. Her work along with the fragmented decoding of other pieces of a message were compiled in another place. One of those messages revealed information on the dropping of the atomic bomb. To have left at a young age to travel to an unfamiliar place must have been a disconcerting trip for a girl from a small town in Texas.
A few weeks before her death, Alta made the same journey to the Pentagon at 92 years old, this time in a wheelchair, and visited the Tomb of the Unknowns and the World War II memorial. In the 70 years between the two trips, she preferred to stay close to home, to be surrounded by the familiar. The path throughout her life was often short and safe. Her son took a different route–we have traveled to Chile, Guatemala, Peru, Paris, Spain, England, with plans to travel more and often. Each journey has changed us because we want to be changed by them. Alta was more comfortable with the safety and security of what she knew, which makes that decision to set out for an experience thousands of miles away even more amazing to me.
We will make the Hill Country trip again, leave north Texas for the southwest of the state via Highway 67, but it will not be the exact same road. The regular stops will not be the exact same ones. The stories to be revealed will be new ones.
“By walking you make a path,
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again.”