Friday, April 15, 2016

Searching for Blue on the Freedom Trail

It's a yearly tradition - this thing we do every Spring; we search out Bluebonnets, that Lupine of the southwest, our state flower. Any native Texan knows the drill. Don't start your search when they pop up in patchy scrabbles of weed off the exit the ramps leading into town. This is a ruse, though there are plenty of native Texan wannabe's risking their lives (and their kids) trying to iphoto the shot off the roadside. No. You wait. You wait until it rains and then heats up and rains again. Then you look at the calendar of all the Bluebonnet festivals in the state and go the week before.
Go, as in get out of town. Go, as in to Washington County first, taking the lazy back roads along the freedom trail, or farther west, to Burton, maybe even Fredericksburg. Maybe you have family in Dallas and you head North, to Ennis or Waxahachie. Go, before the hoards of northerners come and trample the Indian blankets; before the city-slickers discover the hidden jewels of farmland covered in brilliant blue; before the children pick them all to pose in family photos destined for the fireplace mantle.

The Chapel Hill Bluebonnet Festival is right around the corner and the weather on Saturday predicts sun and 75 degrees. We pack a picnic lunch and drive the 90 miles northwest from Houston. Our favorite destination is Washington-on-the-Brazos, the site where the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico was drafted then signed on March 2, 1836 at peril of life and property. That echoing protest would usher in a sovereign country for ten years and a sovereign sentiment that has lasted until today. One hundred and eighty years later, we stand on historic ground. Farmland flanked by Goldenrod. Cows standing in fields of Indian Blankets. Horses running through bluebonnets. God wielding an Indian Paintbrush. Truth.

We eat the pbj's and pasta salad under a grove of century-old Pecan trees, not yet leafed out, then head down the path toward the old Brazos River ferry, site of the Runaway Scrape. The Mexican President, Santa Anna, was mad as a hornet at the Texian uprising and marched through the new republic, laying siege to the Alamo and Goliad. Terrified, the civilians and interim government burned their towns behind them and used this ferry to escape east. Sam Houston, newly appointed commander-in-chief, didn't even have an army but bought time to train one on the run and was accused of cowardice by the fledgling government. Today there are only large stones, brush and vines marking the mass exodus to the river.

Still in search of our own jeweled plot, we leave the bank of the Brazos and strike out through the woods to the pond. We've brought so many friends here over the years: my sister's family and my mother fighting off the sun and mosquitoes; Allison and her family poking sticks into fire-ant hills; scores of my students, even one from my teaching days in China when Bethany was but six months old. I have a picture of me pregnant with Hannah, roundness pressed against a thin white t-shirt. I am flanked by a group from Sinopec, flush with their new adventure.

Santa Anna marched forward, executing his prisoners-of-war and bands of retreating soldiers. As more and more people fled, new recruits joined up with Houston's green army of pioneers escorting the civilians out of the hill country toward Louisiana. Meanwhile, the Texian government fled to Galveston. Emboldened by their retreat and strengthened by more platoons, Santa Anna advanced, gathering his flanking generals.

The first time I saw a rural field of bluebonnets was the year I applied to teach in China. I'd been firmly entrenched in a bright urban life devoid of color. I took a journal with me on that short road-trip and sat on a rock surrounded by God's artistry. I pondered my motives for going to China. Wondered what I'd bring back, how I'd change, what my future held. Or was this my own, private runaway scrape?

In the rainy April weather, Santa Anna and his army of nearly 900 moved through the plains and lowlands toward the border to reclaim the renegade Mexican state, and Houston inexplicably turned and followed, taking only his best men, a straggling army of 500. As they trudged day after day through marsh and mud, reinforcements swelled the number to 910.

We reach the path to the pond that meanders through more woods to flower-decked fields beyond. But we are blocked. Too much rain has muddied the path and swamped the fields. For the first time in all our treks here, we do not sit in bluebonnets. We find another path back up the hill, stopping to examine two small snakes rustling in a thicket.

The Mexican army crossed the rain-swollen Buffalo Bayou by bridge and camped in an exposed plain. The Republic's army camped only 3/4 miles away in a thicket of trees. Reinforcements arrived and swelled the Mexican army to 1400 so Houston ordered the bridge destroyed thus locking in both armies.
April 21, 1836, dawned bright and blue. Convinced he outnumbered the revolutionary band and with no movement from Houston's troops, Santa Anna allowed his troops to take a siesta in the heat of the late afternoon. Silently Houston and his men belly-crawled through the marsh. It took them 18 minutes to win the battle of San Jacinto and another day to track Santa Anna, who fled dressed as a common soldier. Brought back to camp, he declared himself "Napoleon of the West" and demanded Houston's allegiance. Eventually he signed the peace treaty and was escorted out of the new Republic of Texas.

 The fields and prairies that Spring of 1836 were ablaze with the colors of the sky and sun and flame: Bluebonnets, Coneflowers, Verbena and Larkspur; Milkweed, Daisies and Buffalo Clover, Goldenrod and Mexican Hat; Indian Paintbrush, Squawfeather, and Indian Blanket....  We end our trek where the republic was birthed, in the clapboard meeting house with windows thrown wide and muslin curtains billowing in the April winds. The girls find other wildflowers in a patch of prairie grass they have played in every year we have visited Washington-on-the-Brazos. As they make bouquets, my husband rests on the steps of our adopted home, and I celebrate the lovely.

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