Monday, June 16, 2008

Cross Plains Return: Part 1


I’m back from Cross Plains, Texas, which was home for Robert E. Howard throughout most of his life. Howard is best known, of course, as the creator of Conan, who in popular culture is often referred to as “the Barbarian.” I think I might take a few blog posts to tell everyone about my journey, and about Howard, who did far more than create Conan. I hope there’ll be a few tidbits here to enthuse the writer types who visit, and, of course, I learn more about Howard and about myself every time I make the journey. It helps sometimes to write those kinds of things down. Plus, there’ll be stories of beer drinking for the Heff’s who visit here.

My trip began very early Thursday morning, June 12, when the incomparable Lana Gramlich dropped me off at the New Orleans airport and I flew out for Dallas. I met Chris Gruber, a REHupan friend of mine who is an expert on Howard’s Boxing stories, in Dallas, and we drove down together. Cross Plains is 170 miles south and west of Dallas, but we didn’t take the direct route. We went through Dark Valley, Texas. We had a reason.

Bob Howard was born in Peaster, Texas, about forty miles from Fort Worth, but his family lived in Dark Valley at that time. The Dark Valley community consisted then of some fifty folks, but when Chris and I went through we found only a closed business, a cemetery, some fenced land upon which cattle and mesquite were being grown, and the creek from which the community got its name. We stopped at the cemetery and then walked out some of the local fields. Apparently, the Howard home in Dark Valley is no longer standing, but it was still a powerful feeling to walk over the land and to look along the rocky creek, which was mostly dry and drowsing in the hot June day.

Howard only lived in Dark Valley during his infancy but he later suggested that the valley had a strong influence on the darkness of his own personality, and he seemed to recall it as a somber and brooding place. I personally doubt that the somberness and darkness was ever in the valley, or that Howard would have remembered it anyway given how young he was when the family moved. When Chris and I passed through we found that Dark Valley is a very shallow depression along the creek, hardly a valley in the usual sense, and it was certainly bright in the sun, although I’ve been along enough country creeks in my day to know that the atmosphere can be somber in the shade where the trees overhang remaining dark pools of stagnant water. No, the darkness that Howard mentioned would much more likely have come from within than from without. I think a lot of writers have a bit of the same darkness.

From Dark Valley we continued on our way into Cross Plains, stopping at a town named Ranger to stock up on beer and ice. Cross plains itself is in the dry county of Callahan. You can’t buy beer or liquor, or officially drink it in the open, but despite this the local police tend to give the REHupan group some leeway as long as we don’t drink in public and make fools of ourselves. We do most of our drinking in the evenings in the courtyard of the 36 West Motel, the only motel in town, or at the open pavilion which has been built right next to the Howard house.

Once we got checked in, Chris and I had a few beers in our room while we talked about Howard’s work. A new beer that I tried was Tona, a product of Nicaragua. My favorite beers are mostly Mexican dark beers, such as Bohemia and Negro Modelo. Tona couldn’t match these two but it went down smoothly, without an aftertaste, and I liked it pretty well. After that we ventured into the courtyard to yak with some other REHupans and various other Howard fans who were staying at the 36 West, and then the group headed for dinner at a local place called Jean’s Feed Barn. We were by far the largest and most boisterous group there, and I know sometimes the locals don’t quite know what to make of the Howard fans, many of them long-haired and tattooed. But many of us have also made good friends among the people of Cross Plains, particularly among the group known as Project Pride, which is the local community group that purchased the Howard House, restored it pretty much as it was in Howard’s Day, and maintains it as a historic site and museum.

The first night ended for me around 3:00 in the morning. In the dark you wonder, what made Robert E. Howard? How did a small town Texas boy learn to write of lost ages and fabled cities? How did he create barbarians and dueling swordsmen and iron man boxers whose exploits still sing for so many readers of today? How much biology was involved? How much experience? Or was it, as Howard sometimes seemed to suggest as possible, the intrusion of past lives into the present? Is there a chance that some of us have lived before, in other times, other bodies? Could that explain certain dreams I’ve had? You’ve gotta wonder.

To Be Continued:
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30 comments:

Randy Johnson said...

Nice post. While not having the funds or being physically able to make the trip, I like to think think I was there spiritually.
I tried to do my part by reading Almuric and Kull this weekend, as well as dome more of the stories in The Coming of Conan. I tried, but couldn't get to Black Vulmea's Vengeance.

Heff said...

Please continue with stories of beer drinking for the Heffs that stop by ! You never know - I may mention a book on my blog very soon. Muhuhahahah !!!

ivan said...

Ah well.

Old country song:

"I've walked with my maker
Through the dark valley."

Steve Malley said...

Welcome back!

Me, I think Howard was a product of his times. Our civilization was balanced on a delicate cusp.

On the one hand, steam ships and telegraph wires, brought the world together. And that newfangled archaeology was bringing lost cities and ancient empires to light in deserts and jungles all over the world.

The lost city of Troy turned out not to be a myth. And the tomb of King Tut made it look like the ancient world was lined with gold.

On the other hand, much of the world was still uncharted (by us) and mysterious. Africa and Tibet weren't human rights causes, they were touchstones for adventure.

There was scope in our civilization then to be larger than life. Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth and Lawrence of Arabia didn't have their ex's going on talk shows or cable reporters interviewing their third-grade teachers.

Yeah, those rich and sophisticated Transatlantic types were reading Fitgerald and Hemingway and all that, but down on the farms Egyptology, Atlantis and ESP were still mighty fascinating. Edgar Cayce was making a fortune blending all three with a little bit of down-home.

Small wonder too that a shy and sensitive kid would dream. That's what shy and sensitive kids do. These days, they dream of worlds that never were. Back then, there was every possibility that you were dreaming of a world that truly was....

Travis said...

Your words about Mr Howard are wonderfully evocative. I'm looking forward to reading more about the trip.

laughingwolf said...

wb charles, love the bit of history you penned...

and yes, i believe in past lives, nearly embracing reincarnation, though not fully, yet

look forward to your sequels....

Bernita said...

I think Steve is right, but still...sometimes when you seem to know things you shouldn't know...

Barbara Martin said...

Interesting post. I look forward to its continuation. It brings up all kinds of questions, especially at the end.

Everyone has past lives, and everyone has the ability to visit those past lives through meditation, whether to learn something about yourself or who you met then.

Bernita is right when she wrote: "sometimes when you seem to know things you shouldn't know..." Many people have this ability and fail to use it to their advantage. This ability can open up creative avenues, particularly for writers.

Charles Gramlich said...

Randy, I'm getting ready to go back and read "Almuric" as I work on the fourth Taleran book. Would love to see you in Cross plains some year if you're up to it.

Heff, does mentioning it mean that you may have read parts or all of it? ;)

Ivan, hey, I don't know that song. What is it?

Steve Malley, very well said. Howard definitely lived toward the end of a period in human history where the whole world was opening up but there was still substantial unexplored territory and many mysteries. An exciting time for sure.

Travis, thanks.

Laughingwolf, I'd like to believe in reincarnation but I'm pretty skeptical. Still, it makes for great speculation and fun stories.

Bernita, yes, sometimes you really wonder.

Charles Gramlich said...

Barbara Martin, it's definitely a cool idea, and one that Howard toyed with in a variety of stories, especially a series called the James Allison tales. Like I said, I'm skeptical but am open minded. It's an interesting topic.

Jack said...

I enjoyed this post and am looking forward to more. Dark Valley sounds like a name that Howard would have come up with.

Lisa said...

Very interesting and I'm with everyone else -- anxious to hear more. On another very important note, I'm also a big Negro Modelo fan :)

Erik Donald France said...

Charles, this was very fascinating. I'm amazed there are still places in the land of the free where you can't drink what those in the land of the free have always managed to drink.

My contention: the American Civil War's aftermath allowed a lot of weird nondrinkers make a bizarre case for abstinence. Fine for them, not for those who wish a simple drink ;->

Barrie said...

It sounds as though you had a great time on your trip. Thought-provoking, too. Some people are just so incredibly creative, you do have to wonder where it all comes from. Looking forward to more posts on this trip. ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

Jack, yes it does. And I think the name probably evoked certain feelings in him that he later attributed to an actual influence.

Lisa, it's my favorite beer.

Erik, I grew up in a dry county in Arkansas and it's still dry. It is kind of weird how the pattern falls.

Barrie, yes, a good time, although I sure was tired when I got home.

X. Dell said...

Hmmm. Dark Valley was apparently dark. All that's left to ponder is whether or not it's actually a valley.

Perhaps the urge to write on such subjects provided Howard with an avenue of escape? Given his suicide, it would appear he had things to escape from.

ivan said...

Charles the song is "I've lived a lot in my time" If you can't recall it, it's small wonder I think I heard it back in l956.
But I's sure you got the point

the walking man said...

Don't know much about Texas dry counties but a recent foray into one in VA. I saw they figured a way around it by selling hot dogs with the beer. Nasty red hot dogs that piled up mostly uneaten next to a dozen or so beer bottles that were sold as a beverage,

I never got a sense of when Howard lived until I read Travis' post...that was awesome.

Charles 'boisterous' is the other half of the darkness in a writers head, glad to see you blew off some steam in a small west TX town.

Never read Howard or watched Schwarzenegger doing Howard's guy. But I have been a barbarian. Does that count?

laughingwolf said...

pals in mexico laugh at the popularity of 'corona' beer north of their border, they won't even wash their feet in it! ;) lol

Mary Witzl said...

I'm open-mindedly skeptical too; reincarnation does make a certain kind of sense to me. But having grown up in a hot, dusty, do-nothing place, I can definitely understand how a kid can grow up writing in his head. I did some of my best writing in the outfield as a kid, banished there because I was crap at batting and catching and running.

Charles Gramlich said...

X-dell, it's a big question whether most writers are writing "toward" something or "away" from something.

Ivan, I haven't heard that one but, yes, I understand the point. A good one.

Mark, Howard wrote some "boisterous" westerns and boxing stories, too, which I'll be talking about. In most dry counties in Arkansas and Texas they have "private" clubs where drinking is allowed, as logn as you're a member.

Laughingwolf, I'm not a fan of Corona myself. It's not bad and I'll drink it if I'm at a party where they have it but I don't ever buy it myself.

Mary Witzl, I'm with you. I grew up on a farm, miles from any other children, and I spent a lot of time tramping the woods entertaining myself with my imagination.

Leigh Russell said...

I don't know why, but it's funny to think that a person created Conan the Barbarian. I mean, I knew he wasn't real, but ...

Sarai said...

Wow that had to be an awesome trip!!! Thanks for sharing it with us!

ChrisEldin said...

Sounds fun and rejuvenating! I don't think the Hemingway house in the Keys has such a following, does it?
:-)

Ello said...

Cool Charles! So do you believe in reincarnation or maybe that spirits can enter others lives in different ways?

Travis Erwin said...

Sounds like a great time. Wish I could have made it.

Chris Gruber said...

I don't remember the beer...the beer...the beer...mmm, beer. What was I just saying? I had a blast with you Charles, as usual, say hi to Josh and Lana for me.
Chris

Charles Gramlich said...

Leigh Russell, just goes to show what an Icon the character has become.

Sarai, there'll be more to post about and eventually some pics.

Chris Eldin, fun and exhausting. But it was a good exhaustion. I think Howard definitely has one of the most vocal and energetic followings of any writer and I'm proud to be a part of that.

Ello, I'm skeptical but I like to think I'm open minded. I just don't understand scientifically how it could happen, but it is a great theme also to play with in fiction.

Travis Erwin, give it some thought for next year, even if it's only one day.

Chris, yes, I don't think you had a single beer. In fact, I know you didn't have a "single" beer. I had a great time as well. Cool hanging with you.

Lana Gramlich said...

You're sweet. I'm just glad you're home. I'm glad you had a good time, but I couldn't sleep at night... <:(

Danette Haworth said...

Wonderful travel post, Charles. I liked your descriptive passages, especially the one where you recount country creeks with trees hanging over the dark pools of stagnant water. The darkness within statement--I definitely agree.