Willis tried to tell me something, but I wasn’t ready to hear it until years later, when the lessons it had whispered began to make sense.
Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting much from the little Texas town on the edge of Lake Conroe, about 40 miles north of Houston. At first, all I noticed were pickup trucks, good old boys and wary looks. I felt like a foreigner.
But it’s the place where I started getting to know my sister again after two decades’ estrangement. She had married a man from Texas and moved there from Seattle. He works on a pipeline for an oil company and his job is to maintain the “pigs”—those mechanical diagnostic plugs of metal that run through the pipes to make sure there aren’t any leaks. He, my sister and their son have a long driveway full of pickups, ATVs and a boat.
My family and I had enjoyed unexpectedly great times on three visits there; getting rides on the lake, waving back to people spending their evenings in open garages and absorbing the irresistible sense of relaxation that settled over us. We knew we could never live there, in the land of refineries, fire ants and suffocating humidity, but for a few days we could practice just enjoying ourselves.
Maybe that all had something to do with our own decision to move from Iowa to Flagstaff, a place nothing like Willis, yet completely like it, for the mountain town held the promise of a deeper connection to ourselves.
So when my sister called one day to ask if she and her son could come to visit us in our new place, I happily said yes and immediately began to wonder how they would react to what we have here. Not the beauty, for it’s plentiful, but our lifestyle: green, utilitarian, and wedded to respect for simplicity.
On the afternoon of their arrival, we were expecting a big diesel pickup.
But when they pulled up in a black Dodge Challenger with wide racing stripes and a 392 Hemi engine, I had to smile—and not because my young son, peeking out the front blinds, said, “Wow, if that’s their car, then they must be really cool.”
I had to smile because in our move to the mountains, we had brought along a little too much Type A. I knew we could use another infusion of their sincere embrace of life.
And that’s exactly what we got.
We laughed at their retelling of the high-speed exploits that occurred on the way out to Flagstaff, and in response I recounted the adventures of riding my bike to work—without delivering any object lessons.
And so the days passed, with stories of deep-fried catfish and deer hunting intertwined with mountain meadow hikes and tales of a low-impact lifestyle.
We talked about a lot of things, but we didn’t mix the politics of oil and pipelines with bike commuting and green cleaning. We didn’t compare or debate our ways of living.
Instead, we just relaxed. During a quiet moment, I recalled those afternoons out on Lake Conroe. Suddenly, acceptance swept over me like a southerly breeze. I realized then that if my sister’s family were strangers, I would have spent the days lamenting their way of life, seeing their choices as more evidence of our inevitable decline as a species that appears to be bent on self-destruction.
But they were not strangers. They were people doing what they knew, living the life that had unfolded for them and making choices that made sense. And I cared about them.
Finally, I understood why those visits to Texas felt so good and what had been missing for us in Flagstaff.
In the end, we are all just people, making choices. I’m not about to dilute my deep concern about what’s happening to our world—what we’re doing to it—but maybe from now on I’ll focus a little less on the choices people are making and spend more time caring about the people themselves.
Eric lives and works in Flagstaff, AZ. He has published essays in journals of environmental literature and is a guest blogger at WillowsWept Review.
Editor: Malin Bergman