Friday, May 6, 2016

Memories of the Land

Memories of the Land
Bobby Derie

He came to St. Augustine before the dawn, with only the ghosts of tourists around him as he wandered through the ancient brick streets of the old city; the oldest continuously occupied European city in the United States - or what would become the United States, at least. It reminded him of Disney World, or perhaps something like what the theme park had tried to capture in its mock-ups of different foreign cities, transported onto a bit of reclaimed swampland and brightly polished.

There was a similar spirit to them, he mused as he squeezed down narrow alleys between buildings laid out on parallel streets. Disney was, of course, more artificial - almost conspicuously so; you could never imagine anyone actually living in their little villages, which doubled as shops or else had suspiciously clouded panes as the walls contained some hidden storeroom or function of the park not meant to be seen. But there was life in the old quarter of St. Augustine, something like in the French Quarter of New Orleans - real stone and wood, some of it almost enshrined, like the coquina walls of the castillo that still looked out over the sea.

What he sought...what he always sought in such places...was a memory to take away with him, a connection. Something to draw upon when he had need of it, an emotion to charge his workings. But he was finding it hard to come by in St. Augustine. Too much of the old history had been covered with fresh paint, pointed out by small plaques of bronze or wood, and all the old residents were gone, he could tell that. Once, and perhaps not that long ago as men measured time, there were still old Spanish names living in this part of St. Augustine...but no more.

They had been priced out, bought out, sold out. Tourist gentrification had ousted the living relics of colonial rule, to freeze in time a city kept only half-alive by confused crowds that took tours on trolley and horse, bought too-expensive jewelry in shops that used to be houses and taverns, and washed them down with too-expensive beer and wine in restaurants that used to be hotels, leatherworker shops, stables...

The drawbridge was up at the castillo, and it was in all other ways locked up until the National Park Service came to unlock it. But there was a large lawn on the side opposite from the main entrance, away from the old city, where it backed straight up to a shaded neighborhood - and here was a path, unguarded, unblocked across that lawn, straight up the gentle slopes to the wall of the castillo. It was probably trespassing, he knew, to walk there on the outer battlements at night, but he went there anyway, walking through the dry moat and along the stretch facing the sea. Dawn broke then, as he stood there, and the wind picked up, and for a moment he tried to feel...something. But he could not force the memory, and so he left it once again.

The memory came, strangely enough, in a shady quiet corner of the visitor's center, away from the castillo and the old city. A rough globe of blocks of coquina stone cemented together stood, along with a plaque that announced it as the zero mile marker for the Old Spanish Trail - and autotrail, as they had before the interstate highway system was made, which in its day ran from St. Augustine to San Diego. A thousand mile ley line across the southern United States, connecting missions and shrines, towns and forts. A faded, broken artery where once folks in Model T's - well, perhaps not flivvers, but certainly pre-World War II cars, before American car culture really got going - would cruise along old dirt roads and down stone-paved main streets in little towns, following the small posted signs for the OST...

And he stood there, and felt the distant tingle of connection, carved in the flesh of America, and old wound half-healed but not quite forgotten, a tie with its ancient past...and he smiled through his beard at the thought of the old ghosts that might wander still on that old trail, from here to San Diego and back again, a spiritual Spain-away-from-Spain, and wandered at what curses and haunts and legends might be left along that trail, and how they might be tied was an idea, as much as a memory, that he took with him when he left, but he cherished it as he held it in his mind. St. Augustine worked better, he thought, to see it only as a part of a whole. The easternmost anchor of New Spain. The rest, he knew, must be scattered across the United States, in Alabama and Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas and California. He smiled as he set his feet on the Old Spanish Trail, eager to find it, piece by piece if needs be.


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