There again and back again - a few days in Marfa

Note: We recently returned from a vacation in Marfa, Texas. The internet is like water in this part of the country, in that it's scarce, moves slowly, and is probably full of hidden stuff that will try to kill you. Ergo, I wrote this while we stayed out there as sort of a diary of our stay. I had more wine and beer than I normally do, and you'll probably be able to tell which parts were written under their influence as I'm leaving them in. 


Wednesday morning in Marfa. It’s still cool in the shade, but that’s not going to be the case for much. I’m watching a kid chase a rabbit across the campground and hoping he trips and falls into a cactus or an ant hill.  

Didn’t happen; justice is denied.  

People in brightly-colored robes are emerging from most of the trailers. Most of the showers here are outdoor, some are communal. Some of ‘em are taking drags off of what are undoubtedly hand-rolled conventional tobacco cigarettes. Some are frantically packing their gear and hauling it out to the parking lot. Normal campground rhythms, if you’ve ever been to a campground.  

Marfa is in the middle of nowhere, but its a particularly elevated nowhere. The high plains of west Texas are over four thousand feet above sea level. The air is dry and clean and not quite as oxygen rich as I’m accustomed to. There’s a good breeze, and we’d best enjoy it while we can because it’ll be still by mid-afternoon.  

We’re moving slowly the morning, having dined like royalty on filet and mushroom grilled and cheap but delicious tempranillo. I no longer have the prodigious tolerance for alcohol I possessed in my youth, and recovery takes a little longer than it used to (although it is also a more certain and complete recovery as my wizened brain knows how to mitigate hangovers in ways my younger self could only dream of).  

Out here, technology is garbage. My phone is in roaming and never stops alerting me to that fact. It turns out that Sprint’s unlimited data plan does not cover unlimited roaming, so my phone is just a camera for me right now. My Chromebook has all the capabilities you’d expect of Chrome in offline mode, which is to say. It's barely a typewriter.  

It's a nice desk, though.

It's a nice desk, though.

But that’s what we came out here for, isn’t it? Getting away from it all may be a cliche, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its virtues. There’s a difference between ignoring frantic calls from your office and literally not being able to receive them. I’m tempted to set my phone to forward to one of the many bill collectors on my ignore list, but my karma’s bad enough as it is  

It’s mid-afternoon now. We had a late breakfast at Marfa Burrito, and we’re feeling a little heavy again. Marfa Burrito is a must, unspoiled by tourism, cash only, and no English spoken. I suspect the ladies working behind the counter understand English just fine, but in their home, you’re going to speak their language. It’s absolutely worth the effort. For five dollars, you get one of the purest expressions of “burrito” you’ll ever experience.  

We walked around the square and sat in front of the courthouse on benches donated by the Marfa rotary club. The birds around here are marvelous mimics. A dove does a convincing impression of an owl and there’s a grackle singing in a decidedly non-grackle-like voice. Most of the folks walking out of the courthouse seem happy. I’d wager there’s a marriage license or two in the plain manila folders they’re carrying.  

We're back at our home for the week, the Battleship, a 1950s Spartan trailer with more space some apartments I’ve rented. It’s where we spent the first night of our honeymoon and the folks at El Cosmico left us some prosecco on ice because, while this is camping, it’s the most painstakingly curated camping experience I’m aware of. What they’ve done is remove all the parts of camping that make it "real" but also make it "suck." We can enjoy the good bits while the staff here does all the heavy lifting. It’s a fine tradeoff.  

It may feel like a trivial thing, but sleeping in the middle of a hot day with a wall-mounted air conditioner on full blast is glorious. The room never gets really cold, but everything the blasts of air touch is chilly and delightful. It’s a sensation you can never get from central air, and it may just be the nostalgia of it that appeals to me, but I haven’t felt this relaxed after a nap in ages.  

The local public radio station, 93.5, sounds like it’s coming in on an AM from somewhere else in space and time, has renewed my love of public radio. I listen to public radio at home, especially the music-only station,  

Maybe it’s because Father’s Day is coming up, but I can’t help but think of my dad when I’m out here. He brought us out to Big Bend, which is just a couple hours down the road, several times when I was a kid. In his thirties and forties he threw down a very “outlaw country” vibe. He wore Western cut suits, listened to Waylon and Willie and most especially Jerry Jeff, and developed a taste for tequila. You had to squint a little to get it, but the look worked for him. He’d have loved El Cosmico, or at least;,the version of him from the mid-seventies sure would have. Just another thing about me that I belatedly inherited from him, a thought which makes
me smile.  

Tonight, I made marinated lamb kebabs that were an unmitigated failure. The marinade gave them a gritty texture that we attempted to remove by paper towel and even rinsing. The result of this reclamation effort was to remove the flavor while leaving the texture. As Willie said to the youngster, “They can’t all be winners, kid.” On the plus side, grilling pear quarters was a noteworthy success. We will never again speak of the lamb.  


Slept remarkably well last night even though I had dreams about traveling with my father. The word is “melancholy.” Dude was a good traveler, though, and a ace traveling companion. Those two  don’t always go hand in hand.  

The got the day started with a camp fire, some bacon, and some of Nicole’s otherworldly blueberry pancakes. There’s frying, and then there’s _frying,_ and those pancakes were fried in hot, fresh bacon grease. Because they were on the thick side, she could get a good, crispy outside without drying out the center. It was a lot of work, but they were probably the best pancakes I’ve ever had.  

I got some of the free coffee from the main building. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no lack of free coffee in this town. Marfa Burrito doesn’t charge for theirs either. Unfortunately, I failed to affix to the lid to the cup and poured the majority of the cup directly on to my shirt. Those coffee lids are not to be trusted.  

Marfa radio is keeping up their end of the bargain. We just heard the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” and now Townes Van Zandt is singing “Pancho and Lefty” and everything is absolutely right with the world. Nicole’s adding to her art and…oh my, is that Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron?” It is! Dear God, I’m going to have to leave this place and the injustice of that is going to weigh heavily on me.  

Last night, while I was waiting for the coals to catch, I was close enough to a group of young professionals to catch snippets of their conversation. The guys in one huddle discussing their experiences and theories of professional life, while the segregated women talked travel. It reminded me of a conversation I had with one of the folks on the site who expressed something between frustrating, and disbelief that people would drive so far to come out here in the middle of nowhere and just bring their lives with them. Seems to defeat the purpose, but to each their own.  

Finally finished the book I’ve been reading, Hunter Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear. Thompson’s funny as hell and his gift for exposing the hypocrisy and downright evil of authority is well documented, but it almost feels as though 2017 has rendered him a little quaint. The hyperbolic descriptions of presidents past don’t come close to matching what decidedly less gonzo journalists are reporting about the current administration. On a related note, I understand that there are big happenings regarding the President today. I trust folks will update me if I missed anything interesting.  

We’re about to head out to Marathon (that “o” is pronounced like a schwa if the soothing voice on the radio is to be trusted) via Alpine. I’ve been to Marathon before, but it’s been forty years, so my memories are non-existent. I just want a decent western wallet as I feel myself going native.  

Well, we didn’t make it to Marathon. We hit some rain in Alpine and decided to stop there and poke around. It’s a surprisingly nice looking little town. The downtown is in better shape than most of the old Texas small towns, but there was a vibe to it, something a little off. We saw some unique southwestern cactus pottery that we were on the fence for buying, but we passed. Fortunately, the potter is from Austin, so we shouldn’t have difficulty tracking him down if the mood strikes.  

Nothing fancy for dinner tonight. We’re grilling burgers with green chiles and oh look! There’s some leftover bacon from this morning. Huzzah! We’ll have gone through three bags of charcoal when this is over which says something about our pent-up grill lust. This whole trip is giving us some “own our own place” lust. That’s an unfortunate kink to have if you’re living in Austin. Owning a home inside the loop-I-just-made-up-and-is-totally-not-a-thing* is to win the lottery or live within ones means and no betting man would touch either of those propositions.  

View from the hammocks. Unrelated to the current discussion, but I like the image.

View from the hammocks. Unrelated to the current discussion, but I like the image.

I know I keep harping on the radio here, but the DJ has a mean streak. He’s been playing protest songs all day, and I assume that the timing is not a coincidence. Well played, 93.5, well played.  

Met some nice folks when prepping for dinner. A young couple driving from California to the other side of the country via the southwest were making s’mores, minus the graham crackers and chocolate. Their marshmallow roasting was excellent. The man looked so much like a young Luke Wilson it was a little disconcerting, but he was a nice guy and he’d made some good decisions I wouldn’t have had the gumption to make at his age. They’d recently been to Zion and the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe.  

There was another gentleman, old Austin if I’m any judge, who had some good thoughts on where to get decent tacos off the beaten path. Nice folks out here. I haven’t exchanged words with anyone who rubbed me the wrong way. He cooked up some fajitas while I was grilling the burgers Nicole put together. They looked professionally made, but they tasted much better than that. You really can’t beat grilled burgers with green chiles and bacon. Even cheese would have been overkill on this burger.  

As the sun went down, we heard a band playing next to the big building and wandered over to check them out. Adult Mom are a four-piece from New York with what sounded to me like a Safari-era Breeders influence. I can’t imagine they’d played many venues like this and I hope they enjoyed it, even with the sudden invasion of dogs.  

Every band dreams of a stage hammock.

Every band dreams of a stage hammock.

We’re heading back home tomorrow, probably pretty early. Right now, with the travel day still a full sunrise away, we’re planning on taking the scenic southern route through Marathon and Del Rio, but "best-laid plans" and all.  

I sent out postcards earlier today. I have a thing about sending written correspondence when I’m traveling. Part of it is the semi-exotic postmarks on the cards and letters, but it also just seems easier to write to people when there are fewer distractions. That suggests some failing on my part in terms of priorities when  I’m not vacationing, but I’d rather not think of it that way.  


I don't have much to say about the drive home, except for this: If you get the chance to take US 90 between Marathon and Del Rio, you'll be richly rewarded.  

The rest of the drive is garbage. Turning left in Del Rio to head to San Antonio, the desert suddenly becomes something that wouldn't look out of place in central  Oklahoma. Don't bother.  

All told, it was a fantastic vacation. It's only rival in my experience is our honeymoon which, coincidentally, also featured driving all over the desert and staying in Marfa. This has caused a plan to form in our brains, a plan aimed at a very specific goal. Back at home, and at work, it's nice, maybe even critical, to have something to look forward to.


  * Mopac/183/35/71.