Lost amid those deep, bright days of summer was just another one in a line of non-descript mornings that would eventually blend together into yet another quiet summer of yet another quiet year. Flushed with a brilliant array of scarlet, saffron and rose, a cupola of low-sun hues arced high above our heads, its flanks descending the spectrum into paler tints encircling the horizon from east to west. Solid decks of middling clouds cut across the atmosphere leaving narrow strips of open sky near the horizon and marking out regions of atmospheric ascent.
The streets of Marfa had gone dead once again. That dusty little outpost in the barrens of West Texas had once more returned to insulating itself from all the troubles of the outside world. Surrounded by backlit sailcloth, we once again gazed through the smoke flaps as the sky floated by. Outside, the heat of the sun was still caught behind the lens of atmosphere still keeping the air cool. Inside, the oft overlooked things of nature had begun to take precedence. We began to make mental notes regarding the changes of light, air, clouds, and sky. The calls of sparrows and longspurs faded in to become more familiar than just ambient noise. The limpid breeze down from the mountains carried with it its own… And somewhere nearby, the faint groaning of a miserable cowman grew louder.
But, how swiftly such a scene glides by in these places. Before long, those colors of morning would transpose into intense chrome-yellows, golds, carmines, magentas and then, eventually, a solid deep blue. The sounds of serenity would soon give way to anonymous footsteps tripping by on … and internal combustion engines gurgling by.
We took breakfast and were underway by 9. We stood on the eerie streets, staring at our shadows and the empty window displays that lined the thoroughfare. We drove to the Hotel Paisano to have a look around and search for James Dean but he never showed. There was nothing here.
AG disappeared into the hotel to buy a deck of playing cards for the road. I waited outside on the corner, fidgeting with a zippo I had learned to carry from years of watching spy films. The sound of the flint and the hinge were the only sounds echoing down the street, the only noise maintaining my sanity.
As we left town, a frail woman sat in a window frame, happy to see us leave, casually flicking a “la barbe” in our direction.
In the light of day, the Davis Mountains floated above the desert floor like untethered thunderheads. Nearing, we could see rising green slopes punctuated by pine and oak trees. Rocky spires escalated to peaks as carpets of golden grasslands wandered through the canyons. At an elevation of more than 8,000 feet, the range offered a dramatic contrast to the flatness of its environs.
In Fort Davis, we stopped at a village market to replenish our provisions then disappeared into the isolation of the mountains. Out here, the sun digs up secrets and the night covers them up again. Last night, we could not see the vistas that spread for miles. We stood on the stone barriers protecting careless drivers from careening off the precipice. Hemmed in by massif, we photographed the tangled web of geology, ecology and biology in the valley below. A lizard sunned on a rock and a hawk rode the thermals above. It’s quite a thing this improbable oasis Earth. Life has managed to completely overtake this planet. Every single part of the Earth reacts with every other part. It’s all one thing. Every little animal in an ecosystem is important. Every tiny plant is vital.
Just then, the irascible calls of scrub jays died away. Suddenly, there was no longer any breeze blowing through the fragrant pinons. In the clean air and absence of all sound, we watched as grey clouds began to crowd the once relaxed and open space above. As they built, the nimbus carried with them a chilling effect. The rolls and sheets of rainclouds that soon covered the heavens robbed the desert of light. A gray gloom settling along the hills and about the mesas. The sands lost their luster, becoming dull and formless, the vegetation darkened to a dead gray, and the mountains turned slate-colored. A mantle of drab enveloped the scene and I wished I had worn more rain-worthy boots.
When the rain came, it came in sheets. We ducked back into the jeep and watched the undulating walls blanket the mountainsides and the plains.
until it was time to follow the road a bit more.
On a lonely stretch of farm to market road simply labeled 3078, near the town of Toyahvale stands Mission Mary. Serving as a waypoint for lonely travelers, this one room cathedral sits alone, its stark white exterior just visible among the vapors coming up from the floor of the Chihuahuan desert. Built for the people of Calera, she is all that remains of this small community. In the 1940’s, as inhabitants of the town began to abandon…and the town became something of a ghost town, this little chapel fell into disuse. Now, her only congregation consists of passersby, those on the way to somewhere else.
As we neared the building on foot, all that could be heard other than our footsteps in the dirt were the buzzing sounds of the Dog-Day Cicadas coming from the undergrowth. Occasionally there would be a mysterious rattle and we would wonder if we were treading where we should not. A line of rocks outlined the foundation, each inscribed with the names of those who had passed this way before. Behind the building, a short distance away was a collapsed structure of some sort. Other than that, it was Creosote Bush scrub as far as the eye could see. At least until the mountains loomed on the horizon. Pushing open the wooden doors revealed a single room lined with rustic pews and a cross above the pulpit. The light poured in at different points creating a sentimental scene. It was quiet in this place. Except for the occasional clatter of the building’s nooks trapping the wind, the noise of the desert outside had been silenced. We sat for a few moments, only whispering in short sentences to observe the perceived reverence of the place. I wondered about all of the things this building had seen down the years. I could picture this place, empty, standing stoically as a thunderstorm grew on the horizon. Each time I glanced out the window, I hoped to see a wall of clouds growing in the distance. There is nothing quite like a storm in the desert. AG went back outside to survey the landscape and as I watched her, I thought about how grateful I was to be able to visit these singular places with her. Then, as I turned to look at the rays of light slicing through the doorway and coming in through the windows, my thoughts turned to something else.
On a clear day, with the sun directly over head, the sun emits a kilowatt or the equivalent of ten 100 watt light bulbs for every meter squared of the Earth’s surface. The earth is 150 million kilometers or 93 million miles from the Sun. So, effectively it’s radiating this energy along with photons across a giant sphere of with radius of 150 kilometers. Using this distance, complicated mathematics can reveal the total amount of energy the sun emits in any direction and, eventually, how many photons are passing by. Effectively, there is something like one quatuordecillion photons leaving the sun every second, give or take a few. When these particles arrive on Earth, the scattering properties and spatial arrangement of each atom that, together, comprise everything around you determine everything about how an object reflects light. In some cases, when the scattering effect is strong, it could be said the atoms are absorbing and re-emitting light. In others, when the scattering effect is weak, the atoms are mostly perturbing the trajectory of the light without ever actually absorbing it. A photon enters your eye and a given type of cone vibrates in response to the frequency and amplitude of the light wave. The photon is converted into an electro-chemical impulse that goes to the brain and the creation of your field of vision begins. At every second of your life, complicated yet beautiful quantum events such as this are occurring all around you. These remarkable things are taking place, producing the reality to which you’ve become so attuned. Yet, inevitably, each of us so often chooses to remain oblivious to the unbelievable show that is being put on for us. Unfortunately, we humans are more inclined to focus on ourselves as the most important things in this universe. Our televisions and radio waves are filled with ourselves, talking about ourselves. We create problems then set about seeking recognition for our efforts in solving the problems we, as idiots, inflicted upon ourselves. All because we regard ourselves to be above all else. Perhaps this really was all made for us, and that we are meant to be the masters of all we survey. But, perhaps not. Perhaps, more likely, we are just a small part of a more grand design, meant to humble ourselves and observe with gratitude the things we’ve been given. When I think of all the wonders that surround us everyday, I am happy to have been a part of all of this. We may not be able to see these events directly but we can see their results. And, if we can appreciate them for what they are, for how they come to be, then perhaps so many other things will fall into place. But, it seems we humans, like the rest of nature, are inclined to gravitate toward entropy.
Anyway, should you ever find yourself passing through this part of the world, take a few minutes to stop, light a candle and utter the Traveler’s Prayer before moving on. If you’re into that sort of thing.
As we began to leave, I went ahead to start the Jeep. AG wrote our names on a rock and placed it at the foot of the entrance. When she took her place in the passenger seat, I folded up the… and put it in the glove compartment. I took one last look at the Mission Mary. She readied the atlas. Spiritualized’s Always Forgetting With You played softly and we made our way towards home.
Me, I’m only here for the money
Calera is a story of how humans migrate to areas with resources for life, a story of missionaries who follow the people and tend to their spiritual needs, the modernization that comes with time and finally people moving on when the resources for life disappear.
Farm to Market Road 3078
Some were born in circumstances of obscurity and uncertainty, never knowing who they really were or where they were really from, always searching for something. They know the chances of finding it are slight, but they keep looking anyway. Maybe that is who they were meant to be. For some it is a lonely existence. And perhaps the only answer they have is to find ways to make the world a little less anxious and a little less lonely for everyone else.
The first Marfa to appear in a Dostoyevsky novel is in The Village of Stepanchikovo. The next appears in Crime and Punishment. Similar characters of the same name would appear in his next works, The Idiot, The Gambler and The Possessed. But, it is in perhaps Dostoevsky’s most famous work, which the eponymous character is said to appear. The house of Karamazov was tended upon by the long-suffering and morally austere manservant, Grigory Kutuzov Vasilievich. It was he, together with his wife, Marfa, who so futilely counter-balanced the coarse, vulgar, greedy, and lustful deeds of the wealthy patriarch of the Karamazov dynasty Fyodor Pavlovich. Ultimately raising the lord of the manor’s motherless children, including the contemptuous epileptic bastard Smerdyakov whose main interests were sadism and philosophy, the matronly wife of Vasilievich was alleged to be the inspiration for the name of the tiny little outpost that lay just 60 miles from the border of Mexico.
Around us stretched the great sand-wrapped desert whose mystery no man knows, and not even the Sphinx could reveal; yet beyond it, above it, upward still upward, we seek the mysteries of Orion and the Pleiades.