There is a longer entry elsewhere wrt The Great All Hail West Texas Roadtrip of 2k13, but I’d like to get some stuff down for now about what’s been happening.
I left Denton early on Wednesday morning to beat the traffic to downtown Dallas. I hit a little bit of traffic merging from the highway to the interstate, but other than that I was pretty golden. I got downtown and milled about Dealey Plaza (!!!) for a while and talked to some dude about JFK conspiracy theories. I saw the storm drain and the grassy knoll and all of the other alleged shooter locations and this dude reenacted some possible escape routes and locations that jive w/ the Zapruder tape chronology of events. There wasn’t much else I cared to see in Dallas so I bounced so as to arrive in Odessa before dark. I got off the interstate after I passed Fort Worth and began my traverse of West Texas on US-180.
It was pretty uneventful, except for when my car broke down, which (thankfully) came with a whimper and not a bang. I broke down about 4 miles east of a town called Anson, which, as my luck would have it, was the home of West Texas Ford, and apparently the only Ford dealer within something like 100 miles. If luck is a thing that is capable of blessing people, then I am one of those people. Only by association, though — my mother is very lucky and re: genetics I am half as lucky as her, which is still pretty lucky. Unfortunately my father is unlucky and also re: genetics, well, you can figure it out. Each day is a new opportunity to discover which pole the compass is pointed to for now.
I was told that my car wouldn’t be ready until after lunch on Thursday. Okay, fine. I checked into a bargain price room on Commercial Avenue and set myself up for the night. I made the mistake of landing myself in a dry county, so I stocked myself up on Powerade and Jolly Rancher frozen ice cream treats and settled onto the bed with my guitar and my laptop. I ended up doing more television-watching than guitar playing, but I certainly thought about playing my guitar, which is worth something.
I slept in Thursday and had an awkward exchange with housekeeping. I am very cranky when awoken, plus I am known to sleepwalk — so let me begin this story by saying that I am not to be judged or held accountable for the things I say after you’ve woken me up, or the things I do or say while in a sleepwalking state (which happens with unfortunate regularity). Usually it’s mostly harmless stuff like poorly folding blankets in my living room, relocating my slumber to another surface, fetching items and bringing them into bed with me, etc. Once in a while I do things that are a bit more worrisome, like leaving faucets running, sitting on the toilet to pee but forgetting to take off my pajama pants or undies (which when I realize what I’m doing I always bolt awake and get really fucking pissed at myself, no pun intended), and on a few rare occasions I have verbally assaulted people. The worst part is that I either don’t remember doing these things, or have a hazy kind of dream-memory of them, where I remember doing them but I don’t remember having any control over what I’m doing. Luckily I haven’t yet done any serious damage and as far as I can tell these episodes are infrequent enough that they aren’t a cause for concern.
Anyway, housekeeping knocked on my door at 8am. Admittedly, I didn’t put the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door, which obviously I should have. Housekeeping was one single girl, who doubled as the front desk receptionist. From what I could tell, the situation was that this girl is the adult daughter of the owners of the place. This recepti-housekeeper also happened to be either shy, nonverbal, or did not speak English. Whenever I talked to her or asked her questions she would, without fail, smile and look at me and nod slowly. Spanish was met with the same thing, but wide-eyed. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that she didn’t have good English skills based on her race, but it’s clear that she really did not seem to understand what was happening. Whatever the reason was. I think there was a coordinated effort of language skills and social awkwardness going on and I’ll never know the details which honestly is not going to haunt me.
So she knocked on my door just after 8am, and it took a while for me to wake up because I was sleeping deeply and I went to bed sorta late (I had to stay up late enough to download the Nashville season finale that had aired earlier that evening. OH MY GOD!!!!), so by the time I put on shorts and got to the door she had her key jammed into the lock. I opened it and said something along the lines of “Can I help you?” or “What do you need?”, perhaps a bit too familiar for her taste, maybe, I don’t know, but she sorta backed away with a look of horror on her face, then smiled a weird smile and then sorta just stared at me with this painfully passive look on her face. I asked her again if she needed anything or if I needed to do something and she DID NOT MOVE OR CHANGE EXPRESSIONS OR SAY ANYTHING. She just stood there like a fucking statue so I fastened the DO NOT DISTURB sign to the outside doorknob and shut and bolted and chained the door, then went back to sleep for three hours.
At 11 I had to be out of the room so I woke up and piled my belongings up outside. I saw the receptihousekeeper again and I said “hello” and “thank you” and “how are you” and she mostly just stared at me — I’m not even kidding, she was walking down the path while I was sorting through my belongings and I watched her walk all the way toward me, STARING AT ME AND SMILING THIS WEIRD PASSIVE SMILE THE WHOLE TIME and then stop in front of my, looking like she wanted to say something, BUT SHE SAID NOTHING. It was all kinda Stepford and weird.
I couldn’t get ahold of anyone to give me a ride to the Ford place so I just walked, it was about a mile, which was fine, but I was carrying a guitar and a backpack full of items and it was sunny so it was just sorta uncomfortable but I just accpted the fact that I was going to be sweaty and gross and resolved to take a shower asap when I arrived in Fort Davis for the evening.
After dropping my things at the Ford dealer, I walked around town a bit, explored the library, peeked into a few of the several destroyed/abandoned buildings around the downtown square (I am pretty sure they were abandoned; most of them had several public safety citations taped to the doors). The town was super dedicated to the local high school sports team in a real caricature-like way and it kinda hurt my heart to see the economic depression and the sad glass-paint odes to the local sports stars. Half the houses had signs in the front lawn boasting the last name of an athlete and the sport they played. Even worse, I went to the library and looked through the yearbooks for the past few years (which…was a pain of its own) and I saw that in the most recent yearbook (2010) the varsity football team only won three games.
And they all had these beautiful and very professional Football Player portraits with them all on one knee, their hands resting tenderly on their helmets, and faces boasting a pretty even mix of tough-guy scowls and goofy grins. There were photo collages from game nights, ALL UNDER THE HEADER “Friday Night Lights”. OH MY GOD my heart broke so hard. Even worse, though: I looked at yearbooks from the late 70s and early 80s, when those kids’ fathers would have been playing (I didn’t go so far as to cross-reference names, though now I wish I had) and apparently the varsity football team was really good at one point, receiving all-state honors and maintaining at least a 2:1 win-loss ratio for most seasons.
The library was definitely killing me softly so I didn’t stay there too long.
I ended up in an antique mall where I chatted with some lovely ladies about antiques, boots, local history, Texas, and miscellany for a few hours, until I got the call around 4:30 that my car was ready. As soon as I paid (which, let me just say, that this was by far the most expensive repair job I have EVER had on my car, and I’ve had an emergency transmission replacement) I was out of there like tupperware. I had a 6 hour drive to Fort Davis and I still had to eat dinner.
The rest of the drive was very uneventful. Apparently I scooted out of town at exactly the right time, because storms were rolling in from the northwest as I was headed southwest. I managed to skirt around some pretty angry-looking clouds (I even stopped for gas at one point and joined a group of townspeople (!!!) gawking at a wall cloud to the northeast) and I only hit a few light patches of rain.
I made it through Midland (surprisingly developed — it had skyscrapers ffs, BLOOMINGTON doesn’t have skyscrapers (parking garages don’t count as skyscrapers), though Bloomington has about 30,000 fewer residents) and Odessa (ugh, talk about depressing — as a side note, I remembered my Odessa geography from the Friday Night Lights book and even though I stopped for food on the right side of town, it was sketchy as fuck and I did not even slow down enough to look twice at the place I had planned to eat. Odessa has really suffered as the Permian oil reserves have slowly been exhausted over the past few decades, it’s fucking heartbreaking, the whole town was sketch city), then got on I-20 just as daylight turned into twilight.
By the time I got off the interstate in Pecos, it was well after dark and it was increasingly clear that the food options between Odessa and New Mexico were criminally limited, so I stopped at a gas station for beer and a Lunchable (dinner of champions). Also at this point, there was a steady persistent rain sheening the streets and making the 70mph speed limit on the state highway look like a patently bad idea. I prepared myself for the two-hour drive between Pecos and Fort Davis, down a dark deer-infested state highway snaking up into the mountains of southwest Texas. Fortunately I did not encounter any deer, but I did encounter the following things in the road: a snake, two field mice, two larger mice (or rats?), a fox-like creature (it was dark, I just saw eyes), and a cat. Key point there being that I ALMOST RAN OVER A SNAKE WITH MY CAR. Add those things to the several armadillos and two turtles I saw in the middle of the road in Mississippi and I think this trip has been the most exciting safari I’ve ever been on.
I made it to Fort Davis after what seemed like forever on the winding mountain road. I checked into my room at the hotel (which is super nice and super cheap — $95/night for a pretty suite room (pun intended)), and I booked a second night since my day of hiking the Jeff Davis Mountains was clearly not going to happen what with a 6 hour drive to Carlsbad planned for the morning.
As much as it pained me, I woke up early Friday morning after only 5 hours of sleep. I gulped down some coffee and biscuits, stocked my car with water and gas, and began the two hour drive due south to the Mexican border.
When you see the Mexican border in movies and television, or you see photos of people wading through the Rio Grande en route to the golden freedom (lol) of US-America (sigh), you get this idea in your head of what to expect in south Texas. You expect this desolate wasteland with these long open expanses of desert for people to run across with border patrol SUVs tailing them. As a modern person I know to take media representations of reality with a grain of salt, which is why I was so surprised when I discovered that media vastly understated what south Texas is really like. There is desolate wasteland, yes. Once I passed the burgeoning arts town of Marfa, I did not see another hint of civilization until the border town of Presidio. It was just mountain after valley after mountain after valley, all baked yellow and dotted with bunches of flat cactus, century plant, yucca, and a number of deserty things that I could not identify — specimens not present in the high deserts of New Mexico that I’m so familiar with.
It was stunningly beautiful. I was driving down in the mid morning as the fog was lifting and the morning clouds were dissipating. The air was chilly and dry, until 11am when it became hot and dry. Out of the hazy horizon, mountains began to materialize until I realized I was surrounded by mountains as far as the eye could see — and this was Texas. Certainly Big Bend country is not a part of Texas that is well-advertised, and it’s certainly not the landscape one thinks of when one thinks of Texas.
Presidio was also a bit of a shock. The whole thing was like a strange blend of two different movie sets. The buildings were gorgeously run-down and old; it didn’t look like any new buildings had gone up at all since 1960. The culture was also amalgamous, dutifully displaying signs in English and Spanish. The place also had a dense and thriving population of palm trees with tall, thin trunks, lining the streets and stretching into the air Sunset Boulevard-style. I really wish I had spent more time exploring Presedio, or that I’d crossed into the Mexican town of Ojinaga, but alas I cut my way through town quickly and hopped onto TX-170, which runs along the Rio Grande for 60 miles from Presedio to Terlingua, through the Big Bend Ranch State Park (according to my Texas tourism guide, National Geographic has named it multiple times among the most scenic drives in the US).
I have done a lot of driving in this country, and nothing I’ve ever seen holds a candle to that drive along TX-170. I was driving at least 2/3 the speed limit at all times, just taking it in, stopping at every crest to take pictures, climbing rocks to see just these stunning vistas looking into Mexico, all framed by these magnificent desert mountains. I thought the Mexican border was all flat and boring and wastelandy, but it’s not, it’s mountainous and absolutely gorgeous and wastelandy. The Rio Grande was also surprising — it was low and barely flowing, due to the high water demands from the border towns and surrounding areas, which has given the need for diversion dams that had pretty much stagnated the water. It was all this light, cloudy blue-green-grey color and varied pretty well between narrow, shallow passages lined with trees and wide, deep areas with the water pressed right up to the rock walls on either side. I’ve seen the Rio Grande up in New Mexico, and up there it’s nothing but a four-foot-wide rapids collecting water from the peaks of the Rockies. This was a very different river, and I wish I’d had the chance to get a bit closer to it. Of course, I did not want to alert any Border Patrol agents (the highway was crawling with them) because that was a misfortune I was not ready to have befall me.
Nevertheless, I had a splendid drive and decided to stop for lunch around noon once I passed through and landed in the town of Terlingua. I stopped at this little pre-fab trailer with a big “BBQ” sign. The proprietor of the establishment was a man named Bobby. I talked to him while he prepared my food; he’d lived all over the world and seen endless locations and times and moments in history. He found Terlingua while on a motorcycle trip through Big Bend country, and after a few nights of camping on a ridge just outside of town, he decided to make it his home. He moved about one mile closer into town, took up residence in a small home across the street from a small trailer, spent his life savings opening a barbecue joint, and now serves the best barbecue in the state of Texas to the touristic masses.
Terlingua is an interesting little town. It can’t have more than a few hundred residents, but it apparently has three recording studios, which attract a lot of big names in the music business — big names who all find hospitality at Bobby’s Blues and BBQ. Bobby had lots of stories about folks like Willie Nelson rolling up in a pickup truck, ordering ribs, perching on a picnic table, playing songs while they wait, then eating and drinking with the laypeople. Bobby also had stories to tell about people from all over the world who find themselves indescribably attracted to Bobby’s Blues and BBQ — he claims to have met a wider variety of foreigners right there in Terlingua from inside his little trailer than he did in 6 years of living in Europe. He rattled off a long list of countries who have sent delegates to Terlingua to sample his literally world-famous BBQ (he’s been making it for decades, since he lived in the Mediterranean; he uses a mango and orange base. ?!?!).
As an aficionado and connoisseur of road food across this great country, I have yet to stumble upon a place that matches the high marks of Bobby’s Blues and BBQ in atmosphere, taste, and service. Bobby’s place is exactly what I want from my Americana, and it’s one of those rare places in this country that is 100% completely unlike anywhere else you’ve ever been. There’s no gimmick here, no irony. It’s just pure existence. It’s lovely and refreshing, and if for some godforsaken reason I find myself back in Big Bend country anytime soon, I’m going to make a pointed effort to visit Bobby again.
After my lunch experience, it was going to be hard for anything to reach the top of my Daily Awesome Experiences list but I kept an open mind. Alas the drive up Hwy 118 was extremely boring. It was almost two hours before I passed the first sign of civilization, a small and painfully dull town called Alpine (granted, I did not stop in Alpine, perhaps it had a warm gooey interesting center somewhere), and right outside of that I passed uneventfully through an immigration checkpoint. I arrived in Fort Davis in the mid-afternoon, changed for a hike, started a hike, twisted my ankle and fell down, limped my way back to my car, took one of the longest and most satisfying showers of my young life, went to dinner, met some lovely grad students from Austin who I ended up eating with, then settled into my bed with my guitar and did some songwriting while enjoying some Texas beers that I had stuck into a bucket of ice before dinner. The weather is cool and beautiful; the windows are open, blowing in a cool, fresh breeze (finally, finally, that lucid desert air that I long for so much during the muggy nights of the Midwest) and I can hear the pulsating whine of crickets. Tomorrow I head up to Carlsbad, and after that to Roswell and then to Cimarron. I think this trip has been an auspicious way to begin my stint in New Mexico this summer. I hope that despite all of the struggles I’ve had with my mental illness these past few months, that this summer is free from that struggle. As always, being on the road has mellowed me out and given me strength, and I feel ready to begin work on a good mental note. I really hope.
My plans for the next few days include Carlsbad Caverns, Roswell, and Santa Fe. I’ll update with any interesting news.