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: