When morning broke, we found ourselves sat in a clatter trap Jeep cutting through the eerie silence along Highway 10, bones rattling, shattering the peculiar serenity of the West Texas badlands. In the rear-view mirror, the rays of the sun curving around the Earth, passing through thicker striations of atmosphere scattered to give us a blazing spectrum of reds and pinks. Marbling in the echo chamber above, the spectrally pure light left little more than a downcast glow in the cabin, hardly illuminating the gauges on the dashboard which had long become uncommunicative. The overhead lamp, given to intermittent blackouts, had rendered the crumpled road map in AG’s hands useless and the utter loneliness of these parts did well to keep our mouths closed. For miles on end, the Boundary Layer ahead of us was engulfed in shadows, nothing appearing on the horizon but an immense, widening sky, intermittently dappled by cloud cover here and there.
We’d been clamoring along for hours, headed slightly southward, relentlessly upsetting the countryside, stopping only for the occasional service station. Mainly for petrol, mainly for the transitory companionship of other travelers making their own tracks along these dirty highways. Well-amphetimined truck drivers careening along, desperate to fill red-eye deliveries of whatever. Schizophrenic drifters tittering about, panic stricken for the next motel and the next nervous breakdown. Chain-smoking salesmen lying in wait, prowling for the next little score to perpetuate a lavish lifestyle of Class B gin and cash register perfumery. On and on, the compendium of delightful characters appeared limitless, each story better than the next. Who they were at home we could never be certain but it was safe to assume each of them had killed before.
With the tank gasping on what fumes remained, we managed to maneuver the deathtrap to a relative idle alongside the furthest island we knew of in this part of the country. This would be the last stop before the final push deeper into the Chihuahuan Desert. Listening to the bleating motor hiss and quaver as it attempted to cool itself, I thought back to the early hours of the day and the harsh fluorescent lighting of the airport basement. With a wink of his beady eye and a shake of his two sweaty hands, the well-pomaded man lurking behind the rental counter had assured us this was the best transport available, custom designed for a 600-mile trudge into the overheated wastelands of the American Southwest. Blind and greedy stare, hollowed out look and mouth always busy, he had all the qualities of a man you should trust. And now, here we were with this vehicle on its last leg and, soon enough, no one around for miles to hear our screams. AG walked the pavement, stretching her legs and keeping an eye on a load of seedy, potato-looking children loitering about. I filled the tank, leery over the distance left to go and the tiny-handed man stood at the till wearing only a vest made from the teeth of a small animal.
By now, the sun was making its way well overhead, illuminating everything, burning out the eyes of everyone on the motorways. We had made these two-day suicide drives before. Into the Bayous of Louisiana and through the deserts of New Mexico we had trekked, only to make an overnight turn around. But, this one was different. The road stretching out before us appeared endless. Time passed at a crawl. And, we had abandoned all hope of an arrival. When I was young, I despised any and all expeditions into the barren regions. The listless hours of watching nothingness speed by the window, the relentless sounds of 60’s protest music crackling from the speakers, the nauseating smell of overheated plastic. It was all a sort of purgatory. But sometimes, as the past moves further afield, something happens to memory. Our ideas about things begin to change and a more hallowed, sentimental quality comes to define our recollections. What was once unremarkable soon becomes something entirely different. And like that, these arid landscapes had become at once mysterious and reminiscent.
Outside the dusty windshield, open plains spread out before us. Swaying blond prairieland spotted with Pinyon Pines and Alligator Junipers came and went. As we passed a group of foraging pronghorn antelope, AG pointed nobly to the south. At last, the line on the horizon had begun to change. Far away, crags faintly rose above the ground then disappeared. Any coolness that might have lingered in the air had been melted away into pools of water shimmering just out of reach on the asphalt. And, as Brian Jonestown Massacre played intermittently at the whims of the satellite, we somehow managed to coax the jalopy onward. On these journeys, even the slightest change of scenery can be enough to keep you from topping yourself, at least for a few more miles anyway.
Not long after we turned from Highway 67 onto Route 90, the high hills of the Trans-Pecos slowly began to grow in front of us. Soon, we found ourselves among tall yellow grasses and gently sloping mountains. This was the periphery of the borderlands. Traversing across the plain, it was difficult not to get lost in the powerful vastness of the landscape. From time to time we stopped to photograph the panorama and the unique way the light falls upon it all. But, film is never enough. Neither are words. Exhausted from the distance and oppressed from the heat, the vehicle rattled along at a steady, if not tenuous, pace for what seemed like another thousand miles until, at last, coming into view at the side of the road was the first sign that our journey was nearing an end. Subtly breaking up the landscape, a billboard stood reading, “Welcome to Marfa”.
The stark white architecture of the city, brilliant in a wash of sunlight, illuminated the somber, deserted streets with a singular, solitary tone. The angular late afternoon shadows shifting across the bleached out walls lent to the place a nostalgic celluloid quality. There was a sort of quietude about it all, the type you might expect in a place like this. Still, it seemed that, somewhere just out of sight, as the reflections off our car passed by, something was teeming beneath the surface. Some anonymous and gripping serial dramas were unfolding among the lives that went on here. But, we would never be a part of them. We were only passing through. Occasionally, there were faint signs of life like the shape of a car moving in the distance or a boot and cowboy hat combination ambling slowly along on the way to wherever. But, mostly, the place felt like a ghost town.
One by one, landmarks of which we had been told came and went, The Thunderbird Motel, The Presidio, Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, all blending together with the landscape in striking composition. At the town’s lone traffic light, an eddy of Black-Throated Sparrows, swirled to a frenzy overhead then disappeared southward out toward the Mexican Plateau. A piebald Whippet sat in the second lane, waiting patiently for the light to change. Observing in disapproval, the hound looked on as a delicate woman stood by, balancing a hamper of laundry atop her head and shrieking at what I could only assume to be her porter bent low beneath a Datsun, frantically attempting to retrieve a cigarette. Together, the three of us watched this grim controversy unfold until the light turned and there was nothing left to do but continue on. I nodded to the dog and we made our way back out onto the highway.
Just outside of town, as Route 67 began to carry further down toward Ojinaga, Spartans and Vagabonds lay strewn across the land, some painted sky-blue, some orange, others pink, each to match the sky, each floating in their own space like ships on a desert sea. Sioux-style Teepees and Mongolian Yurts drifted quietly, barely disturbing the tranquility that embodied the space. Hidden away on this tawny piece of Chihuahuan grasslands, El Cosmico served as a waypoint for wanderers from around the globe, offering shelter to nomads and ego-maniacal pop singers for nearly seven years. But, upon our arrival, not a soul was to be seen.
With feet unsteady, we stumbled out of the still-quaking vehicle and began to wander among the campsite’s structures. We followed a shifting earthen pathway leading us deeper into the grounds. Several wood burning Dutch hot tubs sat drained of water, their disused fuel stacked neatly beside them. The slings of a hammock grove hung empty, its natural floor littered with antiquated travel journals. An outdoor kitchen stood abandoned, the smell of warm charcoal still hovering. There, we paused to savor the occasional wafts of creosote and oak that also came and went. On the table lay a notebook which, when opened, was revealed to contain works belonging to a brilliantly lonely desert poet. From the impenetrable content, it was clear. Someone legendary had been here. I stood for a few moments trying desperately to decipher the words before me, certain the answer to any question I ever had would be found somewhere within these pages. Minutes turned to hours. I remained, perplexed, until suddenly a figure appeared hovering on the horizon. Not unlike a malevolent cherub emerging from the embers of some medieval Parisian auto-da-fé, the creature loomed, draped in soul-destroying array, with jackboots, horror show hair, and a kind of “mug me” look. As it neared, I could just make out what appeared to be a clotted, sooty combination of baby powder and Colombian extract dotting its face. And, at once I knew to whom these words belonged. Fearful, I quickly placed the bizarre codex back onto the table, grabbed AG by the hand and fled. She would never know how close to Hell she had come.
We scrambled into the relative safety of a nearby lobby house, bolting the door behind us. Pausing to catch our breath, we were immediately swaddled in a pleasant cloud of Pinon incense along with idyllic visions of nights sat round a campfire watching sparks ascend into a velvet sky over some remote part. Thoughts of the terror that lingered outside the door quickly vanished. Reconciled to this new solace, we turned only to find the place teeming with temporary denizens all sat nursing coffee, intently studying their respective mobiles and occasionally casting wary glances in our direction, their earlier arrival having somehow given them some unspoken claim over the place. A new kind of horror. We poured ourselves some house blend, checked in and perused the nomadic, desert-themed wares of the provision company several times until there was no other way to pretend we had a reason for being there.
Outside, all signs of humanity receded once again. Every now and then, the sound of some far away wind chime could be heard or a load of cans would rattle together for some unexplained reason. But, even here, the prevailing theme remained. Silence. That, along with a sense that we had arrived the day after something monumental. We crawled inside our teepee, collapsed onto the bed and began staring through the open smoke flaps at the clouds floating by, occasionally talking, occasionally listening quietly to the canvas swaying back and forth. In this moment, the solitude was just enough. Back in the world, they’ll tell you to chase other people’s contentment, to always move in the direction of something more. But, to hell with it all. In the end, who even likes anyone else, much less wants to share a life or a vacation with any of them? In this place, removed from everything, there was nothing left to do but watch the sky and notice.
When it was nearly time to set off once again, I found myself forced outside, sat on a wicker stool, staring into space, listening to the dueling rackets of a horde of lusty cicadas and a blood-thirsty jackal. Or, maybe it was a Chupacabra. These things are difficult to know. Inside, through shafts of sunlight, moved a banshee, trying on one ensemble, then another, cursing my name and my recommendations. I sat back and gazed up at the ocean of blue above, picturing myself perilously clung to the side of the Earth. The sparse, orange-bellied clouds hung low. A cowman strolled past with a crate of Mexican beer slung over his shoulder. A coyote howled. In one day’s drive, we were half a world away.
At the edge of town lay one of the only other places showing any proof of life, a fortunate turn as hunger was beginning to push us to the edge of reason, compelling us to say things we could never take back. Through the screen door, we found ourselves in a diner with all the grimy character of some mid-century desert biopic. The scene was all but empty outside of a solitary man nursing a bottle, his Stetson pulled low to a point that could only be described as inconvenient. Rays from the four o’clock sun filtered through filmy windows, casting slivers of light arbitrarily across the smoky haze that hung throughout the cantina. La Liga broadcast silently on the television and the rattle and hum of the fans overhead were the only perceptible sounds. As the wooden frame of the door crashed behind us, a gum-smacking server was immediately sent into a feverish fit of muttering and mumbling to herself. With all the bravery of lions, we seated ourselves. The hate-filled waiter approached. I would rather drink gasoline directly from the nozzle than speak with you. Not without difficulty, we placed our order then watched, bemused, as the scowling server walked away, still murmuring to herself. There was a sense she might have been historically unpleasant.
This was different than the place I had read about in all of the high-fashion magazines. In this town, there were no turtlenecks, sipping artisan cocktails, blathering on about an avant-garde art show the previous night. There were no dirty beards dripping of lentil soup, sleeves rolled up, butchering the already intolerable Charles Bukowski. No gratuitous displays of spirit crushing geometry doing your head in, making you uncomfortable with your place in modern life. This was better. This was what it was like to live and die in West Texas. Or, something.
We drove west, past the cemetery at the edge of town and out until there was nothing left on the horizon but empty highway carving up the stark physiognomy of the flatlands. With Interpol’s El Pintor crackling through the speakers, we made our way across the desert, watching the blue mesas poking above the distant line to the north. To the south, tethered Aerostat Radar balloons were launching skyward as a cloud system coming up from the steppes of Chihuahua began to creep along the arc of the Earth. I wondered about life in the silent outposts down this way. The rotting fences, the broken-down campers, the collapsed roofs, the buildings overgrown with verdure whose cracking plaster walls were beginning to crumble inward. There was something about it all that I could not escape.
Just outside the town of Valentine, in an otherwise empty basin, a tiny box sat alone on the south edge of the highway. Prada Marfa, the famed installation of Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, had stood as a modern effigy to the notion of the insidious gentrification of wherever. But by now, cracks lined the panes of glass on the structure’s façade. Graffiti had been whitewashed from its exterior walls. And, its current general meaning was probably something different. Maybe it was now something closer to a tribute to nature’s preference for entropy. Or, maybe gentrification is just another form of entropy. Who can ever know?
Sitting on a pair of train tracks extending away to the east and west, we watched tourists come and go, juxtaposed against the backdrop of the open desert. We listened as each of their voices were inevitably lost, first drowned out by intermittent cars speeding by, then gently blown across the plain in the wake of their slipstream. A curious thing about travel, often there are memorable visual scenes that carry with you long after you’ve gone. They seem to take on a character of their own, distinguished by a certain atmospheric sensation. Lately, on these expeditions into the desert, it had been the way the sun hung in the sky, the angles of incidence with which it illuminated a lonely petrol station, a neglected shanty or some other long derelict architecture. The way the shadows grew long as the pace of twilight quickened. These things coupled with that sense of urgency to get back on the road, the anxiety of not being left behind. It all contributed to the unsettled mood that comes with wayfairing.
Maybe you will have been fortunate enough to have walked the streets of some of the world’s most remarkable cities. And, maybe you will have seen some of the world’s most fantastic natural spectacles. But, if you’ve only known the life of the solitary traveler, the memories you acquire through whatever roads you take, they will always be for you alone, never wholly describable to the hearts and minds of others. The feeling of standing, for the first time, on the quays of that surreal labyrinth known as Venice, staring out across the green waters of her lagoon. The sensation of wandering lost down the backstreet corridors of Paris, suddenly finding yourself among the stacks of a quiet little bookshop holding a first edition of Les Travailleurs de la mer. The recollection of dining in a café at dusk in the Hotel Continental in Lausanne, watching the tourists disembark from the train station as the clouds roll in off Lake Geneva. The sights and sounds of each of these places you may be able to recall in an instant. They are all treasured memories that you will take with you wherever you go. But, no one else can know them. No one else can understand what it was like to be there, in those places, in those moments. No one can understand the brilliance of a certain sunset that you have witnessed while standing by yourself in an apparently humble field of poppies or the magnificence of a view stolen from a mountain peak to which you have fought and clawed and wheezed your way alone. But, those seemingly small instances along with the sensations that tend to outlast the rest become something else when they are shared, when they serve as the backdrop to the individual stood before you or, better so, alongside you. To have another consciousness with which you can witness these experiences is without measure. To have that other being who can later recall, in an instant, what it was like to be there is a priceless thing. To have been given that unbreakable bond of experience is something to hold dear. Some of your fondest memories will still consist of those indescribable landscapes and those welcomed trepidations that come with the journey. Only now, with a fleeting glance or a quiet whisper, you can know they are understood by another. When you think back on the time you stood in the freezing bluster as it lashed across the swells, whipping some untamed coast in the Pacific Northwest, your face sandblasted in the torrent of whirlwinds and rain, you will always know there was someone else who knows exactly those same extraordinary hours. Or, when you recall the warmth and community of a tiny camping lodge and mercantile nestled among the redwoods along the Cabrillo Highway in Big Sur, you can always know there is another who shares with you that same place in time.
We watched the last of the cars pull away and sat for a few moments until another caravan rolled to a stop along the side of the road. Our time here had passed. Now it belonged to them. With that, we turned back toward the little town with a strange connection to Fyodor Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov.
By now, Marfa had begun to come to life, but only slightly. As we entered the city limits, the streets had become sparsely populated with occasional tourists, brooding artists and local vendors setting up shop for the evening. Along the roadside, a conglomeration of makeshift tents huddled together, sheltered from the low western sun by a disused Blue Bird school bus. Nestled to one side of the shanty market, a small nondescript plant stand sat unbothered. AG suggested we stop and gather provisions to meet the expectations of those we left behind. The tables in this corner of the bazaar were haphazardly adorned with flora indigenous to the region. Succulents for miles. Through an electrolarynx, the gentleman proprietor described his wares, frequently pausing to replace the device in his one functional hand with the next item up for display. We purchased a False Rose of Jericho and asked of the distance left to go to our destination. The man looked toward the sky and, with a foreboding look, waved quickly in the way we should go. Noticing the landscape beginning to darken, we bid him good evening, hurriedly made our way back to the Jeep and pointed the clanger northward.
Striking out across the flat plain once again, we passed beneath a brilliant, swirling expanse of blue, purple and orange, the pavement stretching in front of our vehicle tapering to a small speck at the foot of a looming black and grey silhouette. The shadowy contours of a distant mountain range were visible yet fading from view as the night began to retake everything around us. We arrived at the sleepy mountain village of Fort Davis just as her street lights were beginning to burn and her shops were locking their doors up tight. Situated on the southeastern-most slopes of the Davis Mountains, the town was once an outpost protecting emigrants, freighters, mail coaches, and travelers hoping to reach the gold fields of California via the San Antonio-El Paso Road. Tonight, it was the key junction for which we had been searching. It was here that Highway 118 branched off West, taking us higher into the range.
Pushing further upward into the bluish haze, in the dwindling light, AG pointed to something in the forest, some incongruous movement that didn’t quite fit with the surroundings. Slowing the car, we began to catch traces of silhouettes crouching among the blacked-out trees, slowly stalking along the slopes. At the sight of our headlights each would quickly disappear back into the thicket waiting for the shroud of night to shield them once again. In every subtle movement, these mysterious figures moved in a menacing fashion. They were hunters of men, women and children. La Migra. Combing the mountainsides, closing in on some unseen quarry. Cracking the windows, we listened out for the screams but they never came.
The road snaked its way through the narrow pass, switching east then west, careering along precipitous cliff sides and dropping into deep ravines. In the narrow sliver of visibility afforded by the head lamps, the field of view shifted relentlessly from sheer rock faces to inky night sky and then back again. We found ourselves still peering into the shadowy woodland, trying to articulate any recognizable form. But, night on the ground had become too murky.
When the vehicle finally knocked to a stop at the top of the Mount Locke, there was no longer any sound. The silence of the mountainside moved in once again. Crossing the low beams ahead of our vehicle, a line of corpse-like bodies shuffled along, noiselessly lumbering toward a muted collection of red lights arranged in a circular pattern. A midnight occult, taking part in a sinister ritual. Silently, we waited for the ghoulish cavalcade to pass then furtively joined the line, hoping not to be noticed. Solemnly, the train entered a rounded amphitheatre, each member pensively taking a seat.
After half an hour sat in the dim glow, our eyes acclimated to the absence of light pollution and a grand stage was revealed. A canopy of stars blazed fiery against a black sky. On this night, Saturn glowed, the Milky Way cut a swath straight above our heads, and Arcturus shimmered moderately high in the starry dome. The waxing crescent moon remained subtle, careful not to disturb the rest of it all. We had come all this way for the darkness.
It was in this place that humankind discovered the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, the first detection of an atmosphere for any moon in the solar system. It was here that, Miranda, the smallest of Jupiter’s five major moons was first observed. Here, we devised a system for measuring the colors of stars and had begun to examine more than one million galaxies to probe the nature of dark energy as it forced the universe to expand faster at its edges. From atop this mountain, binary stars, globular clusters, galaxies, nebulae, planets and moons of planets were brought within reach.
We are linked to the skies. We owe our existence to the stars. They create the elementary particles from which we are formed. They illuminate the dark veil of our nights and guide us home across deserts and oceans. They are dutiful, unsung sentinels holding constant vigil over us as we toil about in our tiny little lives. For millennia, the human mind has endeavored to understand the secrets of the heavens. Civilizations have devised countless machinations attempting to make sense of the night sky. Its origins as well as its finality have been a mystery inherited for generations on end. Our ancient ancestors turned their gaze to the sky with wonder, living out their lives, constructing their legends in accordance with the heavens. Thus, our histories, as well as our myths, are inextricably interwoven with the movements of the firmament. Out here, in one of the last places where man can look up and see the night as those who came before once did, we witnessed the entire astral canvas spangled with stars. Out here, far away from the world we had always known, we gazed upon just a tiny splinter of our galaxy. Thousands of suns. Thousands of worlds. Thousands of possibilities. Out there, so much more than we could ever see in one lifetime, so much more than we could ever know in a thousand. But, these tiny glimpses, they filled us with such immense reverence and such wonderment. It was enough.
No matter if you believe in a clockwork universe fulfilling its pre-determined destiny or in a probabilistic model in which everything is determined by likelihoods, in the end, it all fits together so perfectly to give us what we have here and now. When I looked up into the deafening quiet of that celestial sphere, I didn’t know how not to believe there is something so much greater than myself, something so beyond comprehension that is making all of this work.
Nevermind that signals decrease massively over distance and all that. But, consider the waves that do make it past our ionosphere, the ones that are not refracted directly back to Earth as skywave. These signals that are lost to us forever are broadcast out into space carrying transmissions too often indicative of a species perpetually whinging about the problems it has created for itself, constantly placing itself at the center of all things. But, if you step beyond all of this, past the borders we have created, past the social constructs we have fortified around ourselves, you’ll see that we are all part of a connected cosmic system. Part earth. Part star. We are humble reflections of a hereditary sky from which we all come and under which we all live. As such, we are stewards of this quantum of nature and everything on it. There is no time for fighting. The Universe is beautiful. Maybe we should all be quiet and appreciate it.