This is part of a new RWG series on the culture, landscape, and history of the Texas Hill Country, defined as the “crossroads” of Central, West, and South Texas. The area sits upon the Edwards Plateau–and it’s where I’ve lived for the better part of my life.
I was an infant the first time I came to the Hill Country.
My late mother used to say that one of her first priorities was to get me to her parents in Pearland and her in-laws, the Hazel and Julian Millican, “down at the Bend.” (That’s a little unincorporated community between Lampasas and San Saba.) They had married the spring before I was born, with my grandmother moving from Killeen to my step-grandfather’s ranch to live.
I don’t recall that first trip to Bend, obviously, but I remember well my grandparents’ sprawling ranch house, a combination of two old houses–painted a deep mauve–and the famous “sleeping porch.” There was a fence that wrapped around it to keep out cows, sheep, and larger wild varmints. There was a big peach tree under planted with a small bed of purple Gomphrena globosa. The memory of that time and space and plant make up what Andrew Keys, a Mississippi-born garden author, calls “plantcestry.” Gomphrena and blooming cacti and scrubby live oaks, cedar, and mesquite are all part of my plantcestry, my natural history.
That peach tree, though? It was equal parts friend and foe. I loved the sweet, juicy fruit and the cobblers and jam my grandmother made from it. (The jam was especially good spread over buttered biscuits my granddaddy made every morning.) But I loathed how at night one peach tree twig inevitably scratched the window pane in our guest room, the space that everyone said was haunted by a woman who died in her bed when that part of the house was in another location.
Which means, I guess, that my Granddaddy Julian recruited a ghost.
The adjoining “fireplace room” was haunted, too. Never mind that we kept the Christmas tree in there with a fire blazing or that my mom and Aunt Jo used to compete gleefully with one another over who could wear the most outrageous 1970s lounge wear; that room was as creepy as all get out. Many a night I sat in the old metal bath tub in the bathroom, shivering from fear and cold with one eye fixed on the door to the fireplace room. I was convinced that I’d see the devil himself stride on in.
To this day the thought of Zest, my grandmother’s favorite soap, sends a shiver down my spine. I cannot fathom what I’d do if I were to smell it again.
The idea of a surprise visit by the devil wasn”t planted in my head by my parents or grandparents. It was seeded by a fabulous old Texas Monthly article about the ghosts of Texas. Someone (probably one of Granddaddy Julian’s sons) had left it in the guest room tucked into a tiny table between the two guest beds. Often I’d curl up with the stories as a youngster, feeling equal parts terrified and intrigued. All the usual haunts were included–the ghostly kids on the San Antonio railroad tracks, the vanishing woman of White Rock Lake, and that disco-loving devil from South Texas.
Yes, there was a lot to spark a young imagination, between the ghost stories and the old house.
What I’d give to go back there again.
Growing up in East Texas there were few encounters to be had with ghosts, unless you count the creepiness down at the old community theatre building in my hometown of Paris. Legend has it that a woman (or, more recently, a girl) was murdered there when the property was the local “picture show.” Over the years more than a few of us thespian types heard strange noises, bumps in the night. Someone even gave her a nickname: Annabelle. If my own memory serves, that name came about from a conversation my own mother had with some other theatre board members, when they decided a reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s lost Annabelle Lee would fit.
Neither Annabelle nor Paris could keep me tethered to East Texas, though. I never felt “at home” there the way I do here. Maybe it was that trip my parents made my first year from Dallas to The Bend that drew me, but off to UT Austin I went. There I pursued a proper liberal arts education while living on the front line of the Balcones fault zone, that landform that lifts the Edwards Plateau up.
And, save for four lively years in Louisiana, here in the Texas Hill Country I have stayed ever since.
- Having finally started an Instagram account, I’m stocking it with photos of my Hill Country life (and the odd travel photo). Come join me over there!
- Last year, as part of my freelancing life, I wrote the Sparefoot.com moving guide to San Antonio. I’m super proud of it, and you can see it here.
- My friend Pamela Humphrey writes mysteries set in the Hill Country. Worth a read!