As a youngster, I started reading quite a lot of science fiction and fantasy novels. I blame my older sister for this as I inherited her room when she left for college and she left all her sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks behind. Having nothing better to do, between running a BBS on my Atari 400 and Atari 130XE and playing games on the Atari 2600 and Colecovision, I read through a huge amount of books. Anne McCaffery, Tanith Lee, Nancy Springer, Alan Dean Foster, and H. Beam Piper wound through my brain. But, the majority of them were more ‘womanish’ and not well suited for a brain looking for more hack and slash, “Dungeons & Dragons” type of fare.
I turned, then, to the works of Michael Moorcock, Robert Sheckley, J. R. R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, and, of course, Robert E. Howard. I ate up the “Conan” stories; in books by Howard and others, in movies, and in the comics published by Marvel. I also read his Lovecraft inspired short stories and really fell in the love with the Puritan, Solomon Kane.
As the years went by my tastes changed, again, and I found myself forgetting the hack and slash and being attracted more to the humorous, like Douglas Adams and the entity known as Grant Naylor and Terry Pratchett. But I’ve never forgotten about that swashbuckling stories of Howard’s.
I knew a bit about Howard but not everything. Several years ago my mother mentioned that there was a festival for Robert E. Howard that a local paper had written about it. At the time I didn’t know that he lived in Texas. I found it interesting, but it wasn’t feasible at the time to take a trip up there.
Lately, though, the fellow has been poking up in my thoughts here and there. I looked up the Robert E. Howard museum a while ago and saw that I was only a few hours away from Cross Plains, TX. Some people may think, “Only a few hours!” but this is Texas, where it can a day or so to cross into another state, depending on your starting point and direction. A sate so large that when someone says, “I live in the Dallas area” they can mean anywhere in a 500 mile radius of said city. A few hours, then, is a run down the street.
Since my days are relatively free these days I decided it would be a good time to visit the home of an author I respect. And, since I don’t know exactly where Michal Moorcock lives, it was an easy choice to visit the museum. I had planned to bring my mother along because she’s more knowledge about the area. However, she got sick yesterday and insisted I go on without her. The irony was not lost on me. But she’s all right and I didn’t kill myself so it’s all good.
This was all kind of last minute so I fed the animals, grabbed my gear, and tapped the ignition button of the Challenger. The first stop was the gas station because a long trip requires a full belly. The next step was to go to Dunkin’ Donuts for some coffee. Because a long trip requires a big cup of coffee. And then there was trying to get to the highway, listening to the Navicomp trying to get me to pay $0.75 to get on the toll road only to get right back off again to be on the same road I was already on. Beauty in motion.
Once out of suburbia and away from the freeways the Challenger really shines. On curvy roads that over and around hills it eats it up and it’s a joy to drive. It’s a car that begs to be driven, to be taken off the well established paths and onto smaller, more personal, roads. The highways I took were mostly two lane affairs with a 70MPH speed limit. Even still, there are always people who don’t feel like going 70. Or 60. They’re quite comfortable going 55MPH or slower and it’s their God given right to make sure you don’t exceed their speed limit. This where it’s handy having a ribbon of road laid out in front of you – no surprises and you can see who’s coming for miles. So, unfortunately for the Sunday drivers out for a Saturday drive, the Challenger had no problems with me dropping into fourth gear and reaching Ludicrous Speed even before I was past them. The problem, a big problem, is slowing down. Once you upshift when the revs are around the 5,000 mark the car leaps forward, ready to push the needle high up on the dial again. It’s really hard to say no, you just want to push the peddle down further until the world is a blur of dull brown, withered green, and brilliant cloudless blue.
One of the cars I passed was a Smart Car. I saw it coming and could see that there was no one in the opposite lane so I didn’t bother slowing down, I just goosed the gas and moved over, passing the little car without a blink but with a whole lot of noise. I looked in the rear view mirror almost expecting to see it spinning in place, like a Wacky Racers cartoon. But it was fine. I wondered if the driver understood that I had used up quite a lot of the precious resources they thought they were saving just to pass them.
Empty roads lead, eventually, to small towns where the highway acts as main street, sometimes covered in an arch of over hanging tree branches. The houses are old, sometimes made of stone. Houses that remember when the paved road was nothing more than a dirt track. After seeing a few towns with a population count of less than 200, reaching a town with a population of 2,000, complete with Dairy Queen’s and strip malls, look like metropolises.
The Navicomp kept changing the estimate of when I would reach Cross Plains. I was hoping for around 1pm because the town was celebrating the last of their year long 100th anniversary party. There was going to be a parade in the morning but the Robert E. Howard museum would not open until one o’clock. Being used to more urban and suburban areas I was a little worried about the crowd and parking. And since, somehow, I was beating the estimated time of arrival I stopped every once in a while just to kill time. Rest stops with picnic areas or grocery store parking lots worked fine for this. I checked my phone to see if I had a signal and, if I did, send a Four Square update of my whereabouts.
Even after all my lollygagging and briefly being “lost” I arrived an hour earlier than I expected. Actually, I wasn’t really lost. The GPS sent me down a side street despite the museum being on the actual highway I was on. I just made two left turns and then a right and I saw the sign for it. There are just times when you can’t fully trust the buggers.
The small section of town I drove through didn’t look very busy. It looked kind of desolate. I parked the car and sat down in the covered pavilion next door to the museum, took out my journal and wrote down a few things. A beetle dropped from the rafters, dead. A big grasshopper jumped into a hollow aluminum support beam making a loud “tong” noise. It was extremely quiet. Much quieter than I was expecting for such a huge celebration.
After doing a lot of sitting around and bug watching, and that area of Texas is pretty good for that, I got up and started taking pictures around the house. I looked at the grill of my car to see if there were any bugs in it. There weren’t any in the top section, but the bottom part had a couple of large grasshoppers. That brought back memories of me and my big sister examining car grills after long trips through Texas when we were kids and just going around to different cars to see what they had stuck in them. Cars back then had big grills, though, not like today. We’d find mutantly large grasshoppers with their wings out, butterflies, those big ugly beetles that are common in that area and drop on you when you don’t expect it. All sorts of things. We’d also go around looking at all the interesting road kill, too. Usually big toads killed in horrible traffic-related ways.
But those days, unlike road dust, are long gone. I went back to the pavilion. It wasn’t long before the museum people showed up, though. They very nicely opened the place up early and gave me the grand tour. The house is a lot nicer than I thought it would be, considering how old it was. I was expecting small and cramped but it was small but comfy. A lot comfier than my apartment. Even though the furnishing isn’t all original, or even mostly original, it is in period. I found it interesting to look at his hand written notes and homework papers.
The tour finished, I thanked the woman who gave me the tour and walked back out to the pavilion to decide on my next move. I was still thirty minutes ahead of my schedule so it was early, yet. Sitting alone in the still, quiet, air moves one towards introspection, though. Robert E. Howard had accomplished a lot before his death at 30. Far more than I have. He knew what he wanted and he did it, even if it meant dying. And he was another one of those manly men, except for the part of being a momma’s boy. Outdoor activities, sports, friends…
I don’t understand sports. I make it seem like I don’t like sports, that it annoys me that people get paid millions of dollars for playing a game. That’s true, but it’s closer to say that I just don’t understand the whole thing. It’s alien to me. What is so fascinating about watching groups of people doing something that doesn’t affect me at all? Or to cause adults to riot when their team loses? And I mean large scale rioting that involves people getting killed. Yankees and the Red Sox rivalry? Who cares? And why? What could it possibly matter to anyone not actually involved in the teams? I don’t know; it’s just another example of how apart from the rest of humanity I really am.
Introspection is not always a good thing for me; I tend to focus on the negatives, the things I haven’t accomplished. It’s rare that I’ll admit that I’ve done any good in life and, even then, I’ll find a way to qualify and minimize it. That’s what I started doing so it was time to leave. I had thought about walking around town to see what the celebration was like but decided, in the end, to keep on trucking. I started up the car, typed in the address to the Greanleaf Cemetery in Brownwood into the GPS and rolled down the gravel road to the highway.
It was easy to find. I pulled in and parked and surveyed the rows upon rows of headstones, wondering how I was going to find Robert E. Howard’s final resting place. It turns out that was easy, too, and visible from where I parked. I walked over, read the plaque commemorating it and wondered what life would have been like had Mr Howard continued to live and write. I got distracted by the other head stones, some of them quite old. I felt a sadness, then, and wondered who mourned at those old graves now. It wasn’t too hard to imagine that people would have died or moved away, leaving Brownwood as a distant family memory. I thought about my wife’s grave, nearly four hundred – no, five hundred at that point – miles away. I was in the wrong place.
The Challenger waited. I took a last glance around and got in, waited for the air conditioner to kick in. The pilgrimage to a hero was complete. While it raised more questions about myself than it answered I still was glad I had taken the trip. I would go and stop at my mom’s to see how she was feeling and then head home to a gaggle of animals who were waiting for me.
Home was calling, the hills were beckoning, and the sky was still a brilliant blue. I let the car howl gleefully, watching the road disappear beneath the orange hood.