Escaping to Marfa

Published in the Desert Candle
February 2006

The storm was nothing, the aftermath was everything. After six weeks of enduring Hurricane Katrina’s wake including walking around my city armed, visiting my home by canoe, zero utilities, pet rescue by boat, becoming one with my chainsaw, alarmist national media, Hepatitis and tetanus shots, and experiencing the near death of one of the most beloved cities in America – I had to finally get out of New Orleans.

What I needed and had been dreaming of was the wide open expanses of West Texas, looking for solace in the dusty, mold-free western roads and highways with mental self penalties for every mile wasted on an interstate.

Having driven the length of Texas in one form or another at least ten times, there was no doubt in my mind about what I was looking for. I wanted to put miles on my odometer… and use the time to breathe and think.

The first day’s drive was a blur of Katrina devastation, which then gave way to Rita devastation and it wasn’t until nearly past Houston that normality on the road began to appear.

Making great time through Eastern Texas, the drive through the night was long, but perfect. The lights and traffic of the big cities finally gave way to the hill country and ranchland of Highway 90. The stars played out in the sky, and the eyes of doe and rabbits sparked amongst the scrub. I finally found the strength to turn off the New Orleans AM news station that can be picked up as far west as New Mexico on some nights. I was leaving it behind. I needed to divest myself, and I did – I put a Steve Earle cd into the radio.

Not far out of Del Rio, I finally pulled to the side of the road in a small picnic area, the lone truck awash in the blackest black of a south Texas night. Two quick cold beers mostly allayed my fears of being hijacked by ‘coyotes’ running illegals, whether real or perceived, and I crashed.

Morning brought bad Del Rio coffee and a wrong turn nearly into Mexico, but a few miles gave way and broke the beginnings of some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen, vistas I had no idea existed in Texas.

With no timetable and only a general heading, I passed over the spaghetti western rivers of the Pecos and the Big Canyon, discovering true one-burro towns whose names escape me now. Other than the views and hours of Robert Earl Keen on the radio, the only conversation I had was with a border guard at a checkpoint.

As he examined me and my Louisiana license, we laughed as I explained how six weeks ago these checkpoints were outrageously foreign and nearly un-American to me, but now after humvees, M-16’s and “let me see your papers” at near every major intersection in New Orleans, I had become slightly accustomed.

He asked where I was heading. I shrugged. He nodded – understanding I think.

Later that day leaning against my truck in the dry desert air, I figured I would maybe camp for a few days in Big Bend, but while following Highway 90 on the map – my finger landing on Marfa. I remembered in a moment why that name was familiar and recalled a friend of mine explaining how Marfa was becoming the new Santa Fe. What the heck, and like that Marfa became my destination.

Each town I buzzed through lifted my spirits, Marathon then Alpine – I got excited about what I might find a little bit further down the road.

Passing over the last rise, Marfa – I guess you could say spread out before me – with the water tower greeting me first. I made a quick pass through the town getting my bearings and then launched into a financial debate… The Thunderbird or the Riata?

Being the lowly freelance writer that I am and having not received any emergency funding from FEMA or the Red Cross at this point, the cheaper move was obviously not the Thunderbird, but heck my body and spirit demanded solace, and I went with the Thunderbird.

I walked into the office and learned of my immediate future… the Chinati Festival was happening that weekend and I could only have a room until Friday morning. Disheartened – how could I chance upon the big festival weekend in Marfa, only to not have a place to stay? The desk manager and I laughed about this, and then I discovered he had grown up in New Orleans and had been in Marfa for a few years, but his parents were still there. “So how’s your house?” I asked in the now typical New Orleans greeting.

Within a few hours I was refreshed, and putting my ancient ragged Luchese’s on – I walked out into Marfa. During that first thirty minutes in town, I discovered what were to become my two biggest haunts during my stay – the Brown Recluse Coffeeshop and Joe’s Bar, although I would become familiar with Carmen’s (of course), Maiya’s and a barbershop straight out of the 1930’s that trimmed my unruly Katrina beard.

What I didn’t know was that within a day I was to be welcomed by a complete stranger who would offer me a place to stay.

Firmly establishing myself as a transient regular at Joe’s Bar, I was quickly befriended by Ray, the owner of the bar, and Anita, his kind and gracious bartender. In fact, over the next few nights, I played a lot of pool and drank beer with some of the true Marfian characters, ranging from the town banker to ranchers and hands, as well as a ton of tourists from Austin.

By the second night, Ray knew of my situation with regards to not having a hotel room and offered up his Winnebago to me for the weekend. Surprised at his generosity, it took me a bit to accept. But I did, explaining that I was now accustomed to not having utilities – it would be no great difficulty, and it was to put it mildly, rustic and perfect. In the mornings I’d stroll over to Carmen’s, then while away a few hours in the sun reading McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, before exploring the roads down to Presidio and Valentine.

I stayed in contact with family and friends through the library’s computers and sat in the rain one afternoon looking for the Marfa Lights, knowing full well that I was supposed to look to the Southwest at night, but really I was dwelling on home. By evening, I would take up my spot at Joe’s curious of who fate would have me talk to that night.

The night of the Chinati Festival, I joined the dinner early, watching the crews set up the long tables while sipping on a Lone Star, the sun passing down behind the western buildings, but warming me in their reflection off the windows across the street. I searched for the ghosts of Hudson, Taylor and Dean down the street at the Paisano and eventually fell in with a random group from Austin bouncing through the galleries for a long night of celebration.

A day later, as Monday morning eventually came down, I knew I had to move on further west. An old high school buddy of mine had offered to meet me in the Canyonlands of Utah and I was wary of overstaying my welcome in the winnebago.

Packed back up for the road, I discovered more vast and beautiful areas of west Texas on these small quiet semi-highways, and at one point nearly had a wash-out some road from a tropical system that had moved in from the Pacific.

Nearing the Guadalupe Mountains, I pulled over to eat lunch on Hwy 54 after the rain had passed, and reminisced about the last few days in Marfa. One conversation kept coming back to me from a night at Joe’s over a beer and a pool game. A Marfian who had originally come from the Mississippi Gulf Coast explained to me how not but a week before I had arrived, he had been down in Biloxi to bury his brother who had died in the rising waters of that hurricane.

Over a thousand miles from landfall, Katrina was able to reach out and touch a town in west Texas with only pop. 2,424, and somehow I to had made my way there to experience the grace of a group of people who I am lucky to have walked amongst in a time when grace and companionship were exactly what I needed.