LoneStarCon 2, the 1997 Worldcon

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The Second Occasional LoneStarCon Science Fiction Convention and Chili Cook-off, Variously known as the 55th World Science Fiction Convention and LoneStarCon 2, the 1997 Worldcon, To be held from August 28th through September 1st, in the year 1997, in San Antonio, Texas.

North To San Antonio

Reprinted from LoneStarCon 2's Progress Report #3

North To San Antonio

by Elizabeth Moon

Unless you grew up in the real South Texas -- that vast triangle of land south of San Antonio and north of Mexico -- you may have trouble thinking of San Antonio as the gateway to the north, a great city beyond the waste. But that was my childhood, tucked into a fertile strip of irrigated land alone the Rio Grande, sixty miles from the Gulf, eight miles from the river, 150 miles southeast of Laredo, and 250 long dry miles south of San Antonio, the nearest city.
We started long before dawn, because it was too hot to drive in the heat of the day (no air conditioned cars then). With only three turns (from Hackberry Street to 10th to McAllen, north past citrus orchards and fields of cotton or winter vegetables, east on 107 to the courthouse square in Edinburg) we ended up on US 281 headed north... headed for San Antonio.
Back then, US 281 was a two-lane highway even in Edinburg itself. Once clear of the railroad tracks, packing sheds, and gins on the north side of Edinburg, it rose quickly above the last irrigation main canals and headed for the north star.
I loved the predawn darkness, with a damp cool wind blowing in the windows, carrying the different smells of orchard, field, cannery, night-blooming wildflowers, and then the change to pungent brushland. A setting moon might lay a silver glamour over wide fields, but even more beautiful were the moonless nights when the stars seemed to hang within reach, layer after layer, all their colors vibrant.
The 90s traveler expects reflective paint stripes on the highway, reflective lane markers, street lamps, lights at intersections, and -- even in rural areas -- the distant baleful bluegreen eyes of mercury vapor security lights in every farmyard, the horizon glow of a town just out of sight. No such lights marred the blackness of a south Texas night in the 1950s; there might be no traffic in either direction for miles at a time. North of Edinburg, we'd see no lights until Linn (a single bulb outside the gin entrance) and San Manuel (another single bulb at the grocery store/gas station/bus stop), then nothing until dawn.
So in the twin beams of our '51 Chevrolet (nicknamed "the palomino" for its color) my mother drove north... past Red Gate (a momentary flash of the dull barn-red of the gate and a glint from the cluster of mail boxes.) On and up, toward the cotton gins and grain silos at Linn and San Manuel, where a paved road led west to McCook and east past Sal del Rey and El Sal Viejo (the bitter lakes once mined for tribute salt by Spanish colonists) to the coast road miles away. Beyond that, the darkness pressed in on either side, as miles of brush bordered the road, tangled and thorny. Occasionally a coyote dashed across, framed in the headlights. More rarely still a loose cow, horns glinting in the headlights, grazed between fence and highway. These were the years that South Texas ranchers struggled to develop cattle resistant to heat, disease, pests: the Santa Gertrudis (King Ranch), the Beefmaster (Ed Lasater, Falfurrias), the Brangus. We still saw old mossyhorns at the edge of the brush, lean and rangy, but fewer each year.
East of 281 was... not exactly nothing, but no settlements, no cities at all. From the highway, with its scarce traffic, to the Gulf Coast, no cities. No towns. No villages. A hunting camp, perhaps, or a cow camp (we were, after all, going to pass the Norias Division of the King Ranch), or a drilling rig with its temporary settlement of roughnecks. West of 281 lay even more of the same: vast pastures of brush and scrub grass, mile after mile, sparsely populated by cattle and even more sparely by humans. No towns, no villages, no cities.
As dawn neared, it got darker. "Darkest before dawn" is no poetic phrase, but the literal truth: the brilliant stars vanish and nothing replaces them but a heavy pall as bitter as blackbrush. The world contracted around the car; the headlights even seemed dimmer. Off to the right -- the east, of course -- a dull red glow, like a bar of hot iron, scorched the horizon. "Dawn," I would chirp, and my mother would shake her head. "False dawn." She was always right. The red always faded away. Another endless (to a child, anyway) stretch of black, then... then the true dawn. Slowly, I would notice the horizon showing clear against a deep dark blue. When this dull blue flushed to a clear green with yellow beneath, then to turquoise, dawn was only minutes away. Rose suffused an arc of the eastern sky, then the sun popped up, always surprising in its quickness, fire-orange in those first moments, and lay crisp blue shadows across the land.
We always took bets on where we'd meet dawn. If we'd started late, it might be as early as Red Gate, which meant a hot, miserable trip, arriving in San Antonio in the hot afternoon. More often, the sun rose when we were near Encino -- the first oaks, growing on captured sand dunes blown inland, and a landmark since Spanish days. That was my favorite, for the way the early sunlight slanted under the dark canopies of the little oak mottes, glittering on the bronze oak mast, making the tiny hills and hollows of dune terrain far more dramatic.
Here was saw the first tangible sign that our road was older than our own kind. On the west side of the road near Encino, on the thick trunk of an old live oak, a red and yellow pattern of concentric circles -- like an archery target -- faced south. It had been there, my mother told me, in her childhood. It had been there when her father first wandered this country. The colors of Spain, marking the old road north to the missions of San Antonio... at a landmark that could have been seen many miles across the flat open country. From Encino on, we would see those colors again, in narrow horizontal stripes and the occasional target (which my mother said usually meant good water near) all the way north to the last ridge above San Antonio.
South Texas sun and wind could strip the paint off a house in just a few years; I knew that. Why had the colors lasted so long? Mother shrugged. Someone repainted the trees, she said. The Highway Department? Not always. Some of the marked trees were on the highway right of way; the highway department might paint those. But others were beyond the fencelines. Those had to be painted by someone else -- landowners, or perhaps some who felt strongly that the old traditions should be kept. No one really knew who painted them, only that they were always repainted before they faded completely.
At that age, I had no feel for the amount of history that lay between us in our '51 Chevy and whoever had first blazed that trail in Spanish red and gold. Old was old -- anything older than my mother was very old. But I did understand mystery. It was easy to imagine someone creeping out in the long twilights, dusk or dawn, to lay fresh, hot-smelling paint on the old marks.
Sunrise at Encino meant arriving in Falfurrias in time to take breakfast with the early risers, in the old cafe on the curve, where spurs ching-chinged on the heels of men who had never worn rhinestones. A parking lot full of pickups and stock trailers and low-voiced men; they all wore holstered revolvers, but didn't swagger. They'd tip their hats at us (a mother and little girl traveling alone), and I wondered what it would be like to live in a town where most people at the cafe were only passing through. We ate pancakes liberally spread with Falfurrias Sweet Cream Butter from the Lasater Creamery, filled the car with gas, and got back on the road while it was still cool.
When my mother traveled the same route as a child, the trip to San Antonio from Doona in the Valley took three days. The first night, they camped at an artesian well south of Falfurrias (I could still point out the place, in the angle of road and railroad.) Then the road was unpaved; the route through the sand dunes was treacherous. One man supplemented his income pulling stranded travelers out with a mule team. (My mother, like her father, always carried hatchet, shovel, and other emergency gear in the trunk.) The second night they stopped at a boarding house in George West, and on the third day topped that final long slow rise that opens above the south side of San Antonio.
What did we find in San Antonio? What anyone finds in a city: bigger buildings, brighter lights, more of everything you know, and things you never even imagined. For me it was half-magical, the oasis after the desert, green and shady and cool when we arrived dazed by heat and distance. What most visitors find exotic was my native terrain -- the Spanish spoken everywhere, the missions, the convents, the customs and social structure derived from Spanish and not English roots. What seemed exotic to me were just those things San Antonio shared with cities in books: a symphony, live theater, tree-shaded parks, clear sweet water, a zoo, tall buildings, a busy airport and train station, brilliant downtown lights at night.
In San Antonio, anything seemed possible... but embedded in my flesh is the memory of what it took to get to San Antonio. If you didn't make it the whole way, if you were stranded in that waterless country between, you'd be worse off than if you never left the Border. If you wanted to make a pilgrimage to The City, you had to prepare -- bring with you the means of survival, expect the hazards of the journey, endure.

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