In the early 2000s, I was invited to create artwork for a race called Brazosport Run for the Arts in Lake Jackson, Texas. Every year I’d create some artwork that was turned into posters for the event. One year we earned the Cream of the Crop Award from Runner’s World Magazine.
My focus in attending the race each year was to sign posters and help raise money for the Arts Center. The hospitality of the people in Lake Jackson was always great. It also felt great each year to get a break from the Illinois winter weather.
It was never super warm in Texas that time of year because the race was held in January. Typically it was in the 50s of 60s with a breeze coming off the Gulf. Some years there was a moist feel to the entire event, with morning mist darkening the roads before the race.
I had not been racing much in those days. Mostly I played basketball all winter and ran a few days a week. So the idea of racing all-out in the 5K event never took hold in a big way. Plus the guy that organized the race was in my age group and I’d have felt awful beating him out of an award if I’d had a good day.
The feel of waking up to a Texas morning in the middle of winter was worth the trip. Those big great-tailed grackles that live along the coast would be squawking and tooting their calls from the live oaks. Somewhere a mockingbird would dish out a medley of bird songs from a telephone pole. Texas is very birdy in the winter months. Due to its location, the Brazosport region hosts millions of birds that head south as far as they can without having to cross the Gulf to the Yucatan or some other point of migration.
I was a snowbird of sort for a few precious years as well. The chance to get the smell of the earth in your nose during winter was so uncommon just twenty years ago. Between the southern bird songs, the communal feeling of warmer weather, and the earthy smell of dry fields licked by salt air fog, the Texas experience each year was so distinctive.
This morning felt just like one of those Texas mornings here in Illinois. The temps have been in the sixties for days. The day broke with fog, and I trotted out into the dark with a light affixed to my arm to keep the cars whizzing past from ignoring me. I ran a couple miles south and turned east. The wind was at my back and the sidewalk was clear. So I picked up the pace a couple miles.
Along the way, my hat brushed the overhanging branch of a Scotch pine tree. The mist gathered on the needles collapsed over the brim of my hat and washed over my face. That water felt so soft and fresh I laughed out loud. I even licked my beard clean and the hydration actually felt good.
It made me think of another one of those mornings in Texas after the race. I’d stayed an extra day to do some birdwatching along the coast. An ocean mist rolled in and the birds were obscured for a couple hours. But I’d met up with a kindly older birder who escorted me to the estuaries where we found wading birds by the dozens. Then a peregrine falcon flew past us, and I called out the identification. The field marks were clear. The dark mustache on the face. The barred belly. My field partner was a bit taken aback by my quick ID. But then the bird veered toward us again and he could see that my call was correct.
“Huh,” he admitted. “It was a peregrine.”
Another year the weather the day following the race turned cold. My walk along the morning beach turned up one frozen-looking Golden plover and a forlorn-looking bunch of Laughing gulls in drab winter plumage. Depressing.
Yet I drove the coast to Aransas and stood on the bow of a boat looking for that prize Texas winter bird, the Whooping crane. I was essentially frozen in place on the bow of that small ship. The temps were in the 20s and my running gloves were not thick enough to keep my hands warm as we plowed into the cold breeze. I clutched my binoculars those first few hundred yards hoping like hell that my twenty bucks and time on the boat would not go to waste.
Then we pulled around a corner and there were several Whooping cranes in sight. We saw more every mile or so during the boat ride. I was the only nutcase willing to stand out on that bow and suffer the cold. It helped that I hailed from Illinois where the cold winter wind was nothing new.
One doesn’t quite realize in those cold moments how unique an experience like that might turn out to be. I gave thanks that my artwork had afforded me the opportunity to go south, meet those great people and see so rare a species of bird. It no longer mattered that I was cold. I’ve been to Texas several times over the years. Found a painted bunting in a park south of San Antonio. Studied roseate spoonbills and red egrets in the bays of Galveston. Listened to bands of heat-addled grackles calling from the light poles of the Houson Astrodome parking lot. Texas is a unique place. A big-assed place.
And I still want to get to Brownsville. Austin. A few other places too.
The real holdover memories center on that mild Texas weather when the rest of the world seemed so cold. This morning as I ran, those feelings came rushing back. I arrived back home happy that I carry those memories around in my head. They are evidence that running can carry us places even when we’re not far from home.