Chasing Smoke

By Ricky Castillon

December 9, 2016.


After months of stalling and procrastination, winter has finally come to south Texas. On this particular morning I had already been out to drop off my youngest brother at his high school, picked up some breakfast and coffee for myself, come home, run around the backyard with my dog for as long as I could stand before the impending chill threatened my already-failing attempt to fight off a cold, begun work on some watercolor illustrations I hadn’t gotten the chance to work on.


It was then I realized my mistake. The previous day I’d been working in the computer lab at the university and that I’d left my bag with brushes and ink pens that I was going to need. It was a rookie move, with the amount of traffic a lab can get this close to finals week spelled danger for any lost items or overpriced art supplies. I hurried down the stairs, grabbed my keys and was off. As soon as I turned the corner, about to exit my neighborhood, I noticed something. As clear as day, black against the white December sky arose a huge plume of black smoke.

I could see it across the street; I was pointed directly at it. From where I was sitting, It looked like it was coming from the parking lot of the local arena where events, concerts, and fundraisers are often held. It is also not uncommon for these fundraisers to include some kind of stake-plate bbq deal that they would cook on an industrial sized grill out in the parking lot. I thought to myself that must be the source of the smoke, I wonder what they’re cooking, why not pop in and have a peak?


Despite my desire to get my art bag back from the computer lab, my curiosity won out and at the green light, I didn’t turn right towards the university, but kept going straight towards the smoke. As I approached the arena, I could still see the smoke, but no grill. Must be out back, I thought. Nope, oh it’s over behind that gym… Huh, not there either… behind these shops? It went on like this for some time, always when I thought I had tracked down the source of the smoke still looming tall over everything I found that, no, it was just a bit further back.


I kept driving. I passed school districts, busy intersections, empty back streets, I drove around and eventually passed the mall in disbelief, hurriedly crossed under the highway overpass, and still the smoke was as tall and as black as ever. Occasionally I’d catch a glimpse of it from the crest of a hill or some vantage point and I’d see that was further away than just a few streets over. I was overtaken by curiosity and now, concern. Something had happened. I knew barbeques like I knew my personal history and they just don’t produce that much smoke, not even the industrial sized ones. The further and further I drove, the more amazed I was that I had been able to see it so clearly all the way from my neighborhood on the north side of town. I was south now, way south.


I went down a frontage road until I found an open space to cross the train tracks to my right. I drove past a trailer park that stretched past what I thought would have been sustainable, some transportation buildings surrounded on all sides by eighteen-wheelers in various states of disrepair, a scrapyard where a sad yellow VW beetle slumped amid mountains of rust colored parts. I should have brought my camera, I thought, taking it all in. I mean this is really something, real authentic people living real authentic lives from day to day, none of this touristy commercial Tex-Mex crap. I thought about how great it would be to come back and shoot here, about the story I’d get after driving all over hill and over dale chasing smoke signals. I thought how silly this would all surely seem later on, after I discovered that it was some accident with a hairdryer in a motel room or some freak campfire incident.


Surely the police would be there before me. Surely they’ve been notified, they must’ve been. I’m sure everyone is just fine. Eventually, the smoke looked like it had began to thin out a little; at least it wasn’t the striking black it had been before. Just as I was about to lament the anticlimax of the whole endeavor, I managed to get a view from some higher ground and saw that the smoke was closer than I thought. I could see the spot where it left the ground but it was still far enough away that I couldn’t see much else. The column of smoke stood amid a sea of tall trees on what looked to be undeveloped land. It looked like all I had to do was drive down this hill then maybe I’d find a road or something to get me closer. I was determined by now at least to know what had happened. I could see no police cars or fire trucks or, for that matter, anyone beside myself who seemed concerned or surprised at all. I drove down the hill and followed it around some turns and a few dips until I reached a dead end.


There were a few small houses to my left and nothing but overgrown green to my right. I decided to turn around, there had been a spot a few blocks back where there was a gap in the railing on the green side of the road and a dirt trail could easily be seen leading into the brush. The smoke rose tall over my head, I was closer than ever. I parked my car on the curb and, against my better judgment, walked down the dirt path that by this point was soft and muddy in places. Trying to avoid especially wet spots, I crept along the muddy path until the ground was overtaken by plant life. By now the trees had cleared and standing on a large rock I could see the smoke clearly as when I had first seen it that morning. Between myself and the smoke I could also see an unmistakable body of water stretched out below me, and suddenly it all made sense.


The Rio Grande lay quietly in the valley where it had for centuries and yet somehow I had forgotten it was ever there. I had forgotten how wide and big it really was. I had forgotten what it was like to stand at its banks and look across the other side, which looked surprisingly, like this side from where I was standing. I had also forgotten everything that was happening on that side, happening every day. It’s easy to forget, especially for those of us like myself who haven’t crossed in years and who don’t really need to. Members of my family who still lived on that side crossed to this one often enough that it was understood; this is how things work now. I stood for a moment longer staring at the dark column on the other side of the river feeling like someone whose next-door neighbor’s house was on fire but who couldn’t call for help, or like I was standing next to somebody who needed CPR but not allowed to intervene.

Quietly, I stepped down from the rock and walked back to my car. I drove back up to the university in silence, thinking how quickly people can acclimate to their situation whatever it may be, climbed the stairs to the computer lab, found my art bag exactly where I had left it, brushes and pens intact, went back down stairs, got in my car, called my grandmother, and went to lunch.


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