FROM CHAPTER 1:
In 1979, my new wife Holly and I relocated from Chicago after gutting it out through one of the worst winters on record. We chose Central Texas because rumor had it the Austin area was one of the most promising places in America for a young couple with artistic ambitions (I a potter, Holly a dance teacher), a tiny budget, and a desire for beautiful, open spaces.
Many people who move to Central Texas to live a self-sufficient life default to the area west of Austin. So that is where we started driving around, looking for cheap land and pleasant surroundings.
But having spent all of my childhood in a Wisconsin community where it is usually green or white, I didn’t know what to think about rocky and brown landscapes with scrubby trees and gnarled undergrowth. The charms of the Texas Hill Country, which are considerable for those who take the time to see them, were lost on my eyes, accustomed as they were to tall trees and lavishly green alfalfa fields. With each day, the sense that we had made a big mistake grew a little larger until my sister-in-law, Laura, suggested we try our luck east of Austin.
We drove for almost an hour and saw nothing to calm our anxious minds. And then, true to its name and reputation, the Lost Pines appeared out of nowhere and without warning, like a dream that couldn’t possibly be real. Twelve miles later, it abruptly disappeared.
Within hours, the decision practically made itself. This is where Holly and I would live, because it felt like home. With the help of my father-in-law, we bought five acres in the heart of the Lost Pines, where we intended to build a small pottery studio and equally modest house.
The Lost Pines circa 1979—when the highway between Austin and Houston was undivided and development was spotty and primitive—was a dense forest of mature loblolly pines, some of which soared nearly a hundred feet, with four-foot diameters. Along the highway on the southern edge of the Lost Pines, the land went up and down like a low-grade roller coaster. While there were oaks sprinkled among the pines, the dominant image from the high point where the Lost Pines began was an overpopulated city of loblollies: impenetrable, and as green as a major-league outfield.
As I grew to love this beguiling forest, I savored a fanciful idea of how it came to be. Eons ago, I imagined, a group of East Texas loblolly pines skipped out on their siblings, made a wrong turn to the West, and decided to stay put in a place where they didn’t really belong. Over time, they grew stronger and more resilient than their eastern ancestors, facing down periods of drought and excessive heat by drilling taproots deep into Bastrop County sand and clay.
There is a haunting image from the Terrence Malick movie Tree of Life that looks steeply upward through several large loblollies in what was, before the fire destroyed it, Bastrop State Park. It is easy to see why Malick wove this view into a movie about the biggest themes imaginable. The trees that tower over Jessica Chastain are primordial and spiritual.
The Lost Pines are—or were—almost everything the popular, Wild West image of Texas isn’t. Before the fire, I could drive Park Road 1C—the barely two-lane road connecting Bastrop and Buescher State Parks—and crane my head upward and wonder how I could be in the middle of Texas while feeling like I was nearing the much-loved redwood and giant sequoia forests of Northern California.
On cloudless and crisp fall or winter days, with windows and sunroof open, I felt like an actor in a car commercial in my revved-up five-speed, fighting the urge to look around and upward rather straight ahead. Summer days brought trips to the Bastrop State Park pool, a lovely artifact of the Civilian Conservation Corps, my girls strapped in and their stomachs sloshing about with every hairpin curve.
The road insinuated itself through mile after mile of mature pines and oaks. It rose and fell, dipping over low-water crossings, and almost kissing the edge of ephemeral ponds that would overflow with heavy spring rains and then fade to nothingness in the summer.
Park Road 1C was where, like many other biking enthusiasts in Central Texas, I would go for rides on hills whose verticality injected fire into my lungs, surrounded by trees that provided shade throughout the day, with part of my ride hugging a cliff with vistas that stretched for miles to the south.
Over more than thirty years, as our family grew to include three daughters, my wife Holly and I occupied four houses within a three-mile radius, deep in the forest and a brisk walk from the park road. Each was much more than the sum of its foundation, studs, roof, plumbing, and electrical wires. Our family took root in these homes and grew strong like the trees that surrounded them. Then the fire came.