The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley

Our annual-ish 1,100 mile pilgrimage to Marfa, way out in the middle of nowhere, the specific part of nowhere in the trans-Pecos high desert of west Texas, did not go precisely as planned this time around. In fact, the cartographically-minded amongst you might have picked up on the fact that the drive from Austin to Marfa is ~430 miles and, thus, the entire trip would fall comfortably short of 1,100 miles. Very observant of you to pick up on that. Why so many extra miles? That's a very good question.

Our car is approaching its third birthday and our battery recently died on us (I may have left the door ajar), so we thought it wise to have it replaced when we changed the oil. The folks at the shop informed us that the battery wasn't that bad. It was right on the edge of needing replacement, but when we said we were going out into the desert, they agreed that it would be prudent to make the change. 

We hit the road early, by our standards, getting on the freeway before 6:00 AM and pretty much flew out I-10. For some reason, this drive feels as short or shorter than the 200 mile slog up to Dallas. Maybe it's because we're going to our magic hideaway in the middle of nowhere, or maybe it's due to the fact that, once we hit Junction, the terrain is hilly and interesting for the entire trip. 

We wound up getting to El Cosmico well ahead of the 3:00 check-in time, so we goofed around the town and hit up our favorite breakfast/lunch spot, Marfa Burrito. It's cheap, it's flavorful, the coffee is free, and no English whatsoever is spoken. There are multiple autographed photos of Matthew McConaughey eating there hanging on the walls. It's that kind of place, in a good way.

When we returned a little after 3:00, our tent still wasn't ready. We sat in the main building, which isn't air conditioned but at least has fans and shade, bought some souvenirs, drank some coffee, and moved all our stuff to the tent when it was ready at 4:30. It was too hot to even think of grilling, so we headed off to the grocery store to get some noms for the evening, and then took some pictures of decaying buildings near downtown.


And then the car wouldn't start. 

This was precisely what we were trying to avoid. Fortunately, a local was able to help us push start it, but we were scared to turn it off again. We drove around town a little and then figured a little highway driving would be the best way to get the battery charged up again. We headed south and passed a border patrol check-point, which meant we were gonna have to stop on the way way back. 

Heading north again, we pulled over and spoke to the shaggy teenager in the booth while Paul Blart (Nicole's description, with which I concur) circled our car with his "probable cause" dog. He saw Nicole's hair and the El Cosmico sticker, gave the dog's collar a tug, and the dog went nuts. We were asked to pull over so he could search our car. Fortunately, we were able to convince him to let us keep the engine lit. 

We sat on a bench next to a younger woman who was playing good cop to Blart's bad 'un. He asked us if we were carrying any drugs, or if I smoked marijuana (a question that drew genuine laughter from us) and went so far as to say that he couldn't arrest us if we did have any drugs. We chatted comfortably with the woman while he did a half-assed search of our luggage. The dog stayed perfectly calm since Blart wasn't tugging on his collar, and we were sent on our merry way.

We made it back to El Cosmico around sundown, parked the car, tested the starter, and..pffft. Nothing. This was precisely what we'd gone to considerable length to avoid and, I gotta tell you, it's pretty hard to enjoy a remote paradise when your car is blorked. Grrr.

The tent itself was lovely. We decided to stay in a tent for one night before moving to our favorite trailer. It was, however, more of a winter setup than a summer one. It had a fire pit, no breeze, and (obviously) no AC. We might have enjoyed it more without the specter of "what the fuck are we gonna do about the car?" hanging over our heads.


We slept in about as late as we could, which is to say, until 6:00 or so, got some coffee, and formulated a plan. We called the roadside assistance that's included with our car insurance to get a jump. Unfortunately, they had to come in from Marathon, about an hour away. While we were waiting, we called Mazda warranty services. When an old battery and a new battery die in short order, and when the battery won't charge with driving, that sounds like an alternator issue, or maybe even a slipping belt. Both of those things should be covered under our warranty, so we figured we'd be better of getting to a Mazda dealership than trying to find a mechanic in Marfa or, more likely, Alpine. The Mazda folks agreed, and said that they could tow us to the nearest dealership....170 miles away in Odessa. 

Well, crap. 

When they guy came to jump the car, we talked to him about what was the likely culprit and he agreed with our diagnoses. We decided that waiting on a tow truck and then riding in the cab for 3 hours was more of a buzzkill than we could handle, so we formed a bold plan: We would drive the car from Marfa to Odessa and hope like hell the engine didn't stop the entire trip. Did we have to stop for gas? Yep! We got away with it, though, and made it to the Odessa dealership, Sky Mazda, by mid-afternoon. 

We left the car with them and they loaned us a new SUV to drive home. Let me tell you a little about the drive from Marfa to Odessa. You know how I said driving to Marfa from Austin seems shorter than it is? Well, this one seems so very much longer. Once you get north of I-10, the scenery turns to flat, scrubby, and ugly. It's interminable. There's nothing to recommend it, no highlights, just nothing at all except for the occasional oil rig. Avoid it if you can.

When we got back to camp, we were in for another fun surprise: The trailer we thought we'd reserved was not the one we got. We've been in the glorious Battleship for our two previous visits, with its beautiful writing desk and leather sofa and just general awesomeness. This time, we were placed in the Imperial Mansion, which is a similarly-sized trailer but it's a completely different feel. No desk, but instead a second bedroom in the back with a single bed. It'd be great for families travelling with a kid, but we just closed it off to save the AC which wasn't up to the task of keeping the trailer livable. It was so hot, we put towels over all the windows and ran the fans over bowls of water to try to get the inside temperature under 90.


On the plus side, it was perfect weather for chilled soup, and Nicole had the genius idea of bringing gazpacho makings with us. She blended up the tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, peppers, and spices, and we added some olive oil, sherry vinegar, and salt, and wound up with....some awfully good soup. 

The next day was spent doing a whole lot of nothing while we waited to hear what was wrong with the car. They weren't able to even look at it until midday and, when they did, I didn't much like what I heard. The battery, the new one we'd purchased only a few days earlier, was so dead that they couldn't even test the car. We'd have to buy a new one before they could even run any tests. Yay. We agreed because, hell, what else could we do? Right before closing, we called them back and the dealership had determined that the battery was the only thing wrong. The shop had installed the wrong size battery and replacing it with the correct battery solved everything.

On the plus side, Lauren and Stuart arrived that evening and were in the (much better) trailer right next to us, the Kozy Coach. Everything got cooler, both literally and figuratively, when they showed up. We enjoyed some more gazpacho, some wine, and some good conversation before hitting the hay. We'd hoped that we could keep the loaner car an extra day so that we could just drive to Odessa sort-of on our way home and pick up our car then. That was a no-go, so we were going to have to drive to Odessa and back again on Thursday.

Not much to report regarding that second trip. Doing that trip twice in three days did not improve it in any way. I will say that the folks at Sky Mazda are nice as heck and we really appreciated their being pleasant throughout this whole mess. We got our car back, headed back to Marfa once again, got pulled over for speeding (81 in a 75), but didn't get a ticket, making this one of the least eventful trips of the week.

Thursday night was highlight of the trip, so much so that I'd even go so far as to say the whole trip was worth it just for Thursday night. We met Lauren and Stuart at El Campo where they were getting tattoos the old-school way by Slowpoke Marfa. We bought a couple bottles of wine, got a little silly, tipped the ridiculously good singer/guitarist, and had a marvelous afternoon. Then, they took us to dinner at LaVenture at the St. George hotel. It was pretty terrific, even though some drunk fool (me) left his hat at the bar.

All four of us retired back to our trailer where we just sat around in the near dark telling stories and secrets and laughing and singing and goofing around with the synth I brought (the Minilogue is absurdly portable) and more laughing. It was so good, in fact, that I somehow avoided the hangover I so richly deserved.

We packed up early on Friday and headed back. Not much to tell about that. We had breakfast at The Water Stop, which has great roasted chicken with tahini dipping sauce that will give you the foulest burps on the planet. We didn't have any cash, so we had to hit the bank's ATM to tip our housekeeper. That turned out to be fortuitous since we left shoes and several of my shirts in the trailer. Derp.

Entering Alpine, TX from the west on Highway 67 from Marfa, a view we saw way too many times over the course of our trip.

Entering Alpine, TX from the west on Highway 67 from Marfa, a view we saw way too many times over the course of our trip.

So that was our big vacation for the year. We both felt like butt when we got home, having contracted a cold or some other, similar malady. I may have just exhausted myself trying to hold my shit together, broken down in the desert. There's certainly a romance to getting away from it all, and I'm eager to do it again. But..maybe we rent a car or take the train next time.