The Mass offered grace abounding and more, including gluten-free communion wafers. That latter was mighty considerate as well as clear evidence that All Saints church in Austin was keeping up with the times. But it distracted me from my devotions.

At the communion rail, I expected the celebrant to ask each of us our preference, the way the guy behind the burger counter asks “mayo or mustard?”. Or would those who required Gluten-free Body-of-Christ wear a badge or hold up a sign or something? No worries. It would be obvious who was that sensitive to the tiny bit of gluten in one of those “little crackers” (as Donald Trump calls them). Ye shall know them by their death rattles.

But why stop with gluten-free wafers? Why not offer NA wine or Blood-of-Christ Lite? (I have no quarrel with the grape- juice-only practice; it’s hyper-choice that’s getting my attention.)

Another distracting thought. Had this sacerdotal accommodation changed our language yet? In New York, the more interesting café windows display signs offering coffee in two species – decaf and non-decaf. Does All Saints offer both gluten-free and non-gluten-free? I was not there long enough to find out, but it might. Texas English is good at that sort of linguistic advancement. Take skiing and snow-skiing, for example.

Never mind. I had gotten what I came for. I was renewed in awareness that I was in the “blessed company of all faithful people” and encouraged to “do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” The starting point of the latter was to go out to the parking lot, get in my already-packed car, and drive back to the Adirondacks where I live.

At the church door, I chatted with the priest and a few parishioners.

“You’re driving to New York? How long will that take? Three or four days?”

“I’m planning a slow drive.” I pointed northeast. “I live up that way. I’m going to go in that direction and avoid Interstates.”

By choice I live in New York (though no longer in New York City), but in many ways I’m still a Texan. That’s a Petri dish for the cultivation of mixed feelings. I’ll give you just one instance. The University of Texas (on the edge of which All Saints is situated) is a world-class institution in which students are permitted to attend class bearing loaded handguns. I have four degrees from the University; it is fundamental to who I am. I object without qualification to ordinary citizens carrying weapons. That dissonance was on my mind as I got in the car.

Before long, meandering driving was accompanied by meandering thoughts – exactly what I’d hoped for. Linear thinking is often required, but I don’t much like doing it, and I’m not any good at it. It was refreshing to lay that burden down for a while.

In the first two hours, I covered but fifty miles, and I was still in Williamson County, much of which is part of greater Austin. Just the pace I was after. I had stopped to read some historical markers, something I seldom do. And I enjoyed learning that Williamson County had parts that were not yet paved over or built on.

Norman’s Crossing was charming. People had started living there in the 1830s. More people there then than now. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any residents there now, except those in the cemetery. Crumbling gravestones dated from the 19th century. As always in that time, a number of them memorialized infants and children. What are humans in the developed world becoming now that we don’t have to be strong or even especially lucky to survive and reproduce?

The cemetery was said to hold unmarked graves of slaves also. Eight companies of soldiers had gone from that little settlement to fight in the Civil War for the right to own slaves. Norman’s Crossing is miles from the nearest battles. How did those men get to where the shooting was? Was there a train? On horseback? By foot? Lots of fighters came from homes far away.

I was enjoying the aimless thinking I had hoped for.

The Civil War has been over for a long time, but like lots of things – death and divorce, for example ­– it didn’t so much end anything as change the nature of it.

A couple of weeks earlier, while driving over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, I listened to a report of the shooting of the Dallas police officers that followed police killing of a black man in St. Paul and another in Baton Rouge.

The first time I drove over that bridge was during the terrible unrest of the 1960s. I was afraid. My car had Texas license plates. I could easily have been taken for an outside agitator. Last month, I was not afraid, but I was uneasy. I was driving a Prius with New York plates. And black-white violence is still a fact of American life.

An hour or so north of Norman’s Crossing, I stopped for a Moon Pie and an RC. This reunion with my dormant Texas self was less than complete, though. I’d hoped to find one of those country stores with wooden floors and a door with “Holsum Bread” painted on the screen. I made do with a convenience store manned by a Pakistani. Later, at another of these charmless imitations of a real store, I got a Cream Soda. I wanted a Nehi Peach or a Grapette. I never did like Grapette, but I would have drunk one to good effect on that drive. I guess they’re not being made anymore.

A while later, I turned off a two-lane blacktop onto a county road. County roads seem to be mostly for the purpose of connecting isolated houses to the FM (Farm-to-Market) highways. A fair number of Texas county roads are not paved. They’re slow going with long stretches at little more than twenty mph.

In three hours, I saw only a handful of other vehicles – two or three propane trucks and some pickups.

When I’d pass a farmhouse or a cluster of mobile homes, I thought about what it would be like to talk politics with the people who lived in them. Probably acrimonious. My values and opinions were markedly different from the prevailing sentiments of that area. And five minutes with talk radio or internet chatrooms made clear that the differences left little room for respect or civility.

I was apprehensive, and I regretted feeling that way. I’d grown up not far south of where I was driving; I knew that country inside out. To make it more confounding, I recalled that I’d been on any number of rural roads in Europe, including the one-lane sort that run about among the hedgerows in Britain, and I never had a moment of unease there.

Drivers of passing pickups offered something that made me feel a little better, a small trademark greeting that I hadn’t seen in a long time. Every pickup driver has his own way of doing it, like having his own voice. My favorite is the understated variety where you keep your hands on the wheel, or almost, and just raise a finger or two. At the slow speed and close proximity that is country driving, it’s easily visible.

This way of connecting took me back to a time when I was less conflicted about Texas. Nonetheless, I was pretty sure those pickup drivers would not like me much. By then, I was passing through the Congressional District of either Jeb Hensarling or Louie [sic] Gohmert. Somewhere nearby was the residence of a woman who informed voters during her campaign for the Texas State Board of Education that at Columbia University young Barack Obama had supported his drug habit by turning tricks as a prostitute.

I was a stranger among my own people, but the understated wave contained a “don’t be afraid” message. It made me feel at home. But not a lot and not for long.

A truck had been behind me since I stopped for that Cream Soda. When I drove out of the parking lot, he drove out behind me. I was on a paved FM road, but I was driving only about forty. The truck stayed right with me. We went along that way for several miles, though he could have passed easily. I turned onto a county road. He turned too. Was this going to be like Deliverance? In these times, political conviction and violent conflict are seldom far apart.

I felt relieved and foolish when he turned into a lane that led to a house set back among some pin oak trees. I imagined him saying, “You won’t believe what I just saw, Dora Sue – a Prius with New York plates.”

I drove slowly and aimlessly for five days, then got on Interstate 90 for a 600-mile finishing day.

I enjoyed the drive, but whatever it was I thought I might find had eluded me.

I’m thinking I’ll reread Huckleberry Finn and refresh my memory about how Huck felt at the end of his trip down the Mississippi on a raft, unmoored, but unable to escape the formative circumstances of life on the bank. I don’t think he was any more able to make sense of things at the end than he was in the beginning. Not at all. It was the particulars of his effort that made it a story people have been reading ever since.

I’ll probably make that drive again next year and see how it goes then.



  1. John Watson

    Enjoyed your version of “Blue Highways.” Least Heat Moon, as I recall from reading it years ago, stopped and talked with locals all over the place. I am not sure how that would go today. I think rural and small town America has lost its mind to an alarming extent. The yahoos have always been with us but in our childhood small towns had a mixed bag of folks and views rather than a mono-culture of ignorance, anti-science, religious fanatacism and extreme political views.

  2. Nancy G

    Thanks, as always, for tour spoendid writing, Paul. Next time we meet at St. Ignatius I’ll you a gluten-free story that will hopefully undo any possible distraction from the sacrament..


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