The Oasis at Imperial, and Slab City; point, counter point

We spent our first night in California at Pilot Knob, a BLM site just over the border from California, outside Yuma. It was a vacant, dusty field, and we just pulled in far enough that we could have some mild privacy without getting ourselves stuck in the sand that got more loose the deeper we drove into the abyss. There was some black mass to the east, a burned out camper, and a lone RV parked the north, tucked way in the back of the field. There was some other debris spread about, between the black mass and the singular RV. Time passed as it does, I took some photos and did some work while Evan disappeared to do some work. After a while, I got worried when he didn’t answer to my phone calls or shouts into the empty space. I put on hiking boots and grabbled my knife and headed out into the settling darkness. He was just on his way back from the black mass, and took me over to see it.

It was getting a bit dark by the time I got over there, but I could see that the mass was actually all rusted out oil cans. Hundreds, thousands of them, piled up and buried in the sand. We wandered until it was dark, and we had a hard time finding our way back to the camper because we couldn’t see it, even with the light we had left on. The darkness was impenetrable. When we finally made it home, Evan made green chile stew, and we watched traffic pass by on the highway, so many people going somewhere, until it was time to sleep.

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In the morning, we watched the sun rise over Arizona, made coffee, and did a bit more exploring. There was a camper with no metal or glass left, no engine, no axles, just a tiny house floating on its side. There was a sea of car tires and a lot of human belongings like slippers, an old television, a gym bag containing a book: how to run a successful business, the entrepreneur’s guide. A pile of computer parts: mouse, cables, modems, motherboards. There was a side of a Penske truck, asserting the truck must be returned in clean condition. We headed to the west, which was nothing but an empty wash, got back into the camper and drove away.

In El Centro, we tried to get coffee. The first coffee shop was closed for construction, and the second place we picked out was in a gym and had no pastries (I’ll skip over the hangry tantrums we both had later, as the result). We headed towards Imperial, which we heard had a hot spring. The GPS took us down two wrong dirt roads, and on the second one we decided to park and walk to find out destination. We hoofed it over a semi-cemented sand dune, and when we got to the correct dirt road, it was merely a sandy path in the center of an open sand field, with more sand dunes in the distance. We walked towards a cluster of palm trees we saw in the distance, and when we got there, it was a literal oasis.

There was a naked older Hispanic man just settling into the pool. It was a perfect temperature. Major Tom, who cannot swim and is typically afraid of water, immediately crawled in and tested his buoyancy, so thankful for the respite from the hot sand and sun. We stripped naked and took his lead. The man, who was “endowed” as men go, was also adamant to show me, and kept trying to position himself in my view, which I constantly averted. Eddie, the guy, tried to put Major Tom on a raft, which didn’t work out so well. He told us how he has been coming here for 25 years, and keeps it maintained. We were lucky, because typically the four wheeler crowd stops there after riding the sand dunes, and there are upwards of 20 people at a time. It was very peaceful, despite the Blue Angels practicing overhead.

Eventually, one of his friends showed up, then another. They were both naked. As in, they showed up naked. As in, they walked down the road wearing nothing but backpacks. We hung out with them for a while, chitchatting about beer, living off the grid, and other hot springs in the area. One of them might be a character in an R. Crumb cartoon. The other, Bob I think it was, was the one who brought beer. When we told him we were headed to Slab City, he rolled his eyes and wished us luck.

“No, go,” he said. “Check it out. It’s just sad is all. Kind of gross. The water there is murky. Real murky, real hot. People bathe in it. I dunno, not my scene is all. But you should check it out, maybe you have a stronger stomach than I do.” He had just told us that he drank a glass of milk, a glass of Sunny D, and a glass of water, and had a salad, before walking over here, naked, in the hot sun, and was currently drinking in the hot tub. Then again, Evan later told me he read on the internet that a dead body was found in the Slab City hot tub, so everything is relative.

As I got dressed to leave, they asked if we were going to take some photos. Maybe young people usually take photos, or maybe they saw my tripod. I told them I probably should, but I’d do it in the sun so they wouldn’t end up naked on the internet.

“Bob’s already on the internet,” the R. Crumb character said.

“Yeah, I’m all over the internet,” Bob said.

I backed away, set up the tripod, and started shooting off photos. About four shots in, Bob jumps out of the pool and runs in front of my lens.
“Am I in the shot?” He shouts, laughing, as he darts across my screen.

“You are now,” I say, and take a snap.

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**

Slab City is located on a long dirt road behind the Niland dump. You first enter by passing a rather ominous, yet empty, info booth, with painted graffiti about reality and what it is or isn’t. Then there’s the famous Salvation Mountain, an impressive hill made of sand, water, and paint, with a sort of sculpted mural built and painted into it about Jesus and God and Love. Then the road sort of meanders and splinters like water marks down a hill. Slab City is gigantic. Utterly huge. At some point we came to an intersection, and, unable to agree on which way to turn, decided to just park the car and walk around. We headed to East Jesus first, passing a number of campers but mainly shanties. There was a fort made by a Desert Storm Vet who had anti-government slogans painted all over the large fortress walls. It may go without saying, but he does not like Obama. As we neared a wash, two men in the arroyo were yelling, “Dog, dog, dog!” as we approached. They were, I think, trying to wrangle their own dogs onto their compound on the other side of the arroyo. They didn’t succeed, and Major Tom almost got into a fight with one particularly territorial female dog. Around this time, we approached a fork in the road. West Satan or East Jesus? We didn’t know we had the choice. We chose East Jesus, because, while our people were likely in West Satan, it was a gamble we didn’t really want to lose.

At the end of the road (both roads, I believe, ended up at the same place), was an area full of art sculptures. They were large, impressive, sincere, and anti-establishment. Oil can elephant, painted televisions with chairs facing them. Awesome.

We put the dog back in the camper and headed in the other direction, towards the Library. At the internet café, we met Donita, aka Mush, who will have lived here for a year in May. She gave us the lay of the land, telling us how to get the things we need, when things happen (mostly on Saturdays, like the swap, group breakfast, open mic night). She introduced us to a girl in the shadows who has lived here since 1998. Her mom moved here in 1992. Her face was painted silver and she told us she was taking herself off “movie duty” because she put on Fight Club the night before and got too riled up. There are other families here who have been here for generations. Uncles, cousins, grandmothers, daughters, babies. But the sunset and sunrise are unimaginable. Everyone here yells. The dogs constantly bark. Last night there was a party outside our camper, but everything got dead quite—the people, the dogs, the music—by 9 pm.

It feels toxic here, and I don’t know what it would be like to be a kid here growing up. Maybe magical, maybe tragic. A bit of both. There is a military base nearby that has artillery practice in the afternoons. This morning we woke up at sunrise to roosters crowing. The sunrise was the most brilliant red I’ve ever seen in the sky, and the whole sky was filled with it. We made coffee, found the hot springs. The water was, indeed, murky, and people weren’t bathing but were lamenting they forgot the soap to bathe. It smells like human feces and there is toilet paper stuck to the shrubs near the hot spring. The murals everywhere are breathtaking, hyper-realistic sci-fi works of art. This place is both too real and a fantasy, a dream and a nightmare. As one dog charged at us to the end of his rope, another sat curiously on a chair and yelped to us. Down one street are shanty structures and tarp walls and campers that don’t move; down another are architectural wonders of off-grid living with personal water towers, garden, deck, and metal sculptures. Yin, Yang.

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We stopped by the internet café again, and the woman with the face paint’s face was still painted. She screamed belligerently about a “cunt bitch” and “Mother Earth” and chased some guy out of the café who said, “you brought that violence on yourself.” Meanwhile, an old hippy brought out a few bottles of orange soda and a Gatorade cooler full of melting sherbet. People helped themselves until a woman went back for seconds and got dope sick. Someone asked her if she was okay and she said she needed more insulin but was running low. She dropped something in the sherbet and stuck her hand in there in search of it. A few people moved off the couch to give her room to lay down, and she spent the rest of the time there groaning with body aches and sounding like she might throw up. The internet wasn’t working and the flies were incessant. Some guys outside, including the one chased out by the woman with the face paint, listened to thrash metal and sang along.

Back at the camper, our neighbor, where the party was happening the night prior, was playing the piano. A real, honest-to-God, wooden upright piano. We threw a few ice cubes in the rest of our coffee and sat outside writing, reading, and appreciating the best of Slab City. Eventually, of course, another man came by when Evan was on a walk and talked to me about Pennsylvania, himself, my tattoos, and how it’s dangerous to be a single woman alone here. Evan came back and he tried to convert us to become Born Again.

After sundown, we took the dog for his evening walk, choosing the route with the friendliest dogs and the least yelling people. A man popped out of the dust forest behind us, screaming obscenities and walking in our direction. We picked up our pace and took the first turn we came to. He kept yelling we couldn’t see him, and our inner-children were excited and scared as if we had broken into a haunted house, but it was more like we had stumbled into a GG Allin performance, only it wasn’t a show. Suddenly the yelling stopped, and we ducked into another field. I turned my flashlight off. Someone else passed us in the other direction. I have poor night vision, but the darkness in this hazy place is thick, despite the moonlight, and things even close can barely be seen. Even the flashlight offers little relief.

“If yelling guy is still out there, he’ll eat that guy first and we can get away,” I said, joking.

We walked back in the direction we came, in the dark. Eventually, I turned my light on and he was gone.

**

End note: Today, we left Slab City for Joshua Tree. I’m finishing this post at a Starbucks in Mecca, California. On our way here, we passed the Salton Sea, a lake of murky brine on a beach of fish bones. The red mountains behind the sea were in a morning fog, and the blue desert sky reflected against the sea, giving it a clear, romantic look. The fishbone beach looked, from the distance, to be a fine, clean white sand.

From a distance, like so much in the Imperial Valley, it was breathtaking.

 

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Some notes on Sonoran Wildlife

In the desert, my eyes are tricked in their search for familiar. I see creatures everywhere: the tall saguaro cacti are tall, thin men looming on hilltops, staring down at me; prickly pear fallen from the barrel cactus before ripe is a gila monster sleeping trailside, soaking in the hot sun of this record February; driftwood becomes pronghorn, javelina, or some other, otherworldly creature. Of course, there are real animals out there. When I’m having a slow day on the bike, working my way up a grueling climb, it’s bettered by the sight of a jack rabbit or cotton tale. When my dog walked off to explore and I had to go searching for him before the coyotes found him, lizards and spiders criss-crossed at my feet and the holes in the sand they crawled from looked suspiciously large for merely a small critter like them. And the coyotes! They are expert ventriloquists. These smart pups can throw their voices so it sounds like one is right outside your door while another is up on the hill, and they can yip in such rapid succession as to create a whole pack from just a dog or two. They are small and curious and deadly to other small animals, like my own dog. Something came up to our camp fire last night—maybe a coyote? Desert fox?— but when I turned around I was blinded by my own headlamp and could see only its eyes as we stared at each other for a moment, before it ran into the arroyo. For the rest of the night, we heard them (or maybe just the one) calling out into the darkness. The saguaro cactus outside our camper is home to a Gila Woodpecker, and midday the hawks and falcons can be seen soaring in search of food. This is a difficult season, typically, because some animals are hibernating, or at the very least are skinny from lack of nutrient. In the city, we saw the most beautiful raccoon we’ve ever set eyes on, so gigantic and majestic and outlandishly fluffy, like a Pomeranian given a fresh bath and blown dry with a hair dryer. There are desert skunks, too. Just like up north, they are more often smelled than seen.

We haven’t seen a bobcat, though at Tucson Mountain Park, we went mountain biking when I was almost delirious with a head cold, and Evan was just getting over one. We got mildly lost, and found ourselves in an alarmingly luscious ravine with a creek flowing through it. There was a mesquite tree with a lot of ground cover, and something behind it rustling. I waited for a while for it to show itself, but it stayed behind, in the shade and cool water. I imagine it was a bobcat, doing us the favor of not killing us.

Otherwise, there were some possibly wild horses wandering near Tohono O’odham Reservation, and some definitely wild horses at Tonto National Park, and a javelina or two that’s crossed our path or come close to it, the black cat of the desert (note: they are nothing like cats). In Honeybee Canyon, we crossed paths with a lone grazing cow with a tag in her ear, either a wild being being tagged for observation or else someone’s so-called property to later use for food. I tried to get close, but she took a step back and faced me with a woman’s fear and rage I know too well. We thought we saw mountain goats or pronghorn outside Biosphere 2, but they were just deer (bo-ring!).

With such an expansive landscape, with so much unbothered by humans, why would they come close to us, the number one predator on the planet? So it is understandable that the larger animals keep their distance, and miraculous that the smaller ones dare come close. Here at Gunsight, just outside Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Evan plays guitar every night for a while, and then succumbs to the loud night of so many animals calling and cooing under the stars, like the elf owl and burrowing owl. Of course, we are at a campsite, and for a while were mesmerized by what had to have been a rare Saguaro Desert bull frog (which we did see at the Desert Museum), but turned out to be merely a common Mating Retiree.

Santa Fe, a Love Story

Maybe I’ve been avoiding writing about Santa Fe. I used to write poems for the City Different, for the people there, and the smells, mountains, the sky that swirls constantly into its folds like blueberries into batter. I love Santa Fe the way I’ve loved people, for all its complexity and frustration, for its ability to leave one with nothing to do at night or with a world of possibilities if we are willing to take a small risk, for its irony and cliché. To truly love someone is to not love them despite their flaws, which is to say to wish they were somehow a better or different version of themselves, but tolerating this lesser version anyway.

And so it was that I found myself making excuses to travel up to Santa Fe from Terlingua, rather than heading straight west into Tucson, Arizona. I have a crush on Truth or Consequences and wanted to stop by and see that town. I wanted to see friends in Albuquerque at the Saviors show when the band played The Launchpad. But really, logic be damned, I was headed (and thus, so was my family) to the mountain town of Santa Fe, New Mexico to spend Christmas with old friends among the snow-covered streets and farolitos.

I needed to at least see the city. I missed even the view from Highway 25 as it nears St. Francis, and the adobe begins to pop up, the beige and red clay a warm contrast against the clean white of snow and steel grey wintry sky, street lights just beginning to turn on during these short winter days.

We had been there for five days when Jaime died in Albuquerque. Jaime was like the moon to me, with four phases, four personalities, all of them bigger than a single human life, and I loved him. Since I moved away twelve years ago, I lost some tabs on him but still kept in touch. Just like at his church service, the stories I could share about Jaime aren’t fit for this blog. But he was a good person and loved his friends heavily, and took everyone as they came, without ever seeming to expect anything more—a skill I can only strive to possess.

My friends in Santa Fe became Evan’s friends, and their friends also became our friends, and we saw how easily we could slip back into the groove I’d worn twelve years ago. We hiked and made dinner together, cried and went to Christmas parties. We hoofed the farolitos walk and watched movies in bed. We ran errands around town and went to the funeral, we got food at my favorite Albuquerque restaurant and went to a memorial party at the Launchpad, which opened early just for us. We hiked some more, went to another party where I was told another friend had passed on Christmas Eve (more on that later), sang karaoke at the Cowgirl and suddenly it was New Year’s Eve and we were still in town, and Evan and I were invited to a New Year’s Eve party at Jelly’s house, which was the best New Year’s Eve party I’d been to in a long time, with so many faces I’ve been missing, and luminarias outside, and good music and friendship.

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farolitos walk

A very vain and selfish thing I love about Santa Fe is that it feels like it sees me, acknowledges me, and wants me there. Like maybe the love is mutual. We had to leave after the start of 2016 because it was just too cold in the mountains for our camper, and for our old, bald dog who hates cats and thus can’t be let inside our friends’ house. I almost cried as we pulled away. Maybe I was already missing the camaraderie of simply sitting in a room with an old friend, listening to records and barely speaking, or the overwhelming floral of nostalgia from simply walking into a supermarket. Maybe it was the immeasurable love for my friends who, like the city itself, seemed to always take me as I came, and who were so easy to love for themselves. But what I see when I think of Santa Fe is the round-corner buildings and Virgin of Guadalupe murals, the snowcapped pines and aspens, the lights flickering in an otherwise dark-skied night, and the roadside fires burning so warm into that same dark, their paper bags holding the flame, protecting it from the winds.

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farolitos at the Scottish Rite temple

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Aspen Vista trail (before I cleaned my camera sensor)

Truth or Consequences

For years, I’ve been wanting to stay at Riverbend Hotsprings, a modestly fancy resort in Truth or Consequences, NM. A room there is pricey, and in the times I’ve been down that way, either I haven’t had any money, they haven’t had any room, or some combination thereof. Evan and I had been talking about going there for a while, and conceded on spending the night boondocked outside of town and taking a dip in the springs.

Evan found a hike online in nearby Radium Springs, a small ranching community, that would take us into a slot canyon. The first blog he found gave ample description of the place, but no directions and limited landmarks, so as to not “blow up the spot.” The second blog, however, included the GPS tracking information and Google map of the hike. We combined the information and after a few false starts, ended up relatively where we thought we needed to be. We crossed the Rio Grande at a shallow section and hoofed in and out of what seemed to have possibly been a trail at some point, now well overgrown with cacti. We knew we were on target because we passed the abandoned ranch, but the trail was all but nonexistent. We had to carry the dog most of the way, due to the low thorns of the brush, and I was leaning towards turning around and calling the trip a bust when we made it to a wash clearing, where the water from the canyon floods out and nothing grows.

We hiked up the wash for a short while and found ourselves immersed between high sandstone walls along a little crevasse that wound deep into the mountain ridge. As we walked along, bats could be heard chirping and flapping away. One little sleepyhead stayed put as I passed, so small and still that I would have missed him if it weren’t for my hand almost crushing him as I lazily grabbed at the canyon wall for support as I passed. I didn’t touch or wake the fuzzy little creature, though, and he was still sleeping on our return out the canyon. Also seen along the walk was scat from bigger animals. Mountain Lions and coyotes are common on the area, so we read, so we listened to the noises ricocheting off the canyon walls as we moved about, marking which were bat, which were us, and which were the dangerous other.

Once we found our boondocking site for the evening, we made ourselves comfortable and boiled some tamales we picked up in Las Cruces. The flame went out and we noticed the heater hadn’t kicked on for a while. We tried to crank the heat and reignite the stove pilot, and realized immediately that we had run out of propane. The tamales were cooked, though, and we have plenty of blankets, so we hadn’t much else to do but cuddle up for the evening and wake at sunrise to purchase propane and make coffee.

After the cold night against our sore muscles, and the four nights of free camping since leaving Terlingua, we decided to treat ourselves and park at the Riverbend Hotsprings Resort to utilize their electricity, water, and close proximity to the springs. For one person to soak for one hour is a reasonable $10. For us to camp for the night was $50, which included unlimited soaking. We each soaked four times, plus used their shower twice each, and enjoyed the sauna twice, so it paid for itself quickly before even calculating our filled jugs for drinking and use of their dump tank. After a few rather cold nights, it was nice to sit in hot lithium water and watch the sky dim to dusk and the stars flicker on singly, and then in the morning the steam from the pools float in the sunrise as the sound of water from the lowest pool cascaded into the river below, onto the carp that waited there for the warm water like dogs begging for food.

On the first day, we hiked up Turtleback Mountain, which we had attempted two years ago when we came through town and Riverbend had no vacancies. At that time, it was Evan’s first time hiking along a ridge and the exposure was intimidating. Due to the winds, we make it about 75-80% up the ridge before turning around. This time, we made it up to the top of the mountain with no problems, and were rewarded with an incredible view and the honor of signing the mountain’s journal, tucked into a pipe at the peak. After, we sat in the hot spring along the river and stared up at the summit, feeling satisfied and in awe of being able to go anywhere.

The next day, before heading to Albuquerque, we hiked along a flat path with Major Tom, who had been so good to wait in the camper while we pampered ourself in the springs. We met a man there who will inevitably make it into a book someday, who regaled us with stories of having punched the local dog catcher, chasing away the meth and opiate dealers in town, and growing up in Lawrence, MA (which made his other stories much more believable). He had spent 17 years in jail for marijuana trafficking (“But I mean, it was A LOT of weed, lots of border crossings”),  and ended up in Truth or Consequences to lay low and open up a trailer park where he could just relax and soak in hot springs every day. When the trouble moved in, he wasn’t going to have it ruin his good time, but it did ultimately ruin the town and all the formerly thriving businesses there.

Regardless of the town’s problems, it’s still one of my favorite small towns in the US, full of mystery and charm, not as if time forgot it, but as if its own watch stopped, and the town itself forgot time. Old 60s neon still glows into the otherwise deep darkness of night, like an American Acapulco in the middle of the quiet high desert. I can see myself, like that man, ending up in Truth or Consequences when I’m sick of learning of friends’ deaths (two this week) and wars of greed, when I’m tired of arguing about nonsense and defending things that shouldn’t have been attacked in the first place.

For now, though, we are still on our spirit journey, pushing along and enjoying the beauty of the planet that waxes and wanes between magnificent and pure magic. At the end of the day, we still have friends who are breathing next to us or halfway across the planet, we still have stars that pull us from our bodies into the the vast space of which we are already part, we still have the smell of pinion and sage, the hushed comfort of snow.

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Terlingua and the Laquitas trails

Terlingua. Now that’s a town I could bug out in for a while. Brad told us before we left to make sure we had a full tank of gas, because there isn’t any gas station between Alpine and Terlingua, and Terlingua runs out regularly. It’s a small town between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park, and has two towns coexisting: the old ghost town remnants and the hippies who moved there to grow old in the early 90s and never left. We stopped in the bike shop, Desert Sports, and got the lay of the land and sense of the trail system. While we chatted, one of the women working made a few calls to the gas stations for us. Sure enough, one of the gas stations was out of gas and the other’s pumps were broken. Desert Sports gave us the brochure for a friend of theirs who just opened up a camp ground, and we headed there to drop the camper and try to catch a short ride before the storm came rolling in. One of my favorite things about the vast southwest is that weather can be seen hours away, slowly charting its course across mountains and valleys, the wind’s velocity an indicator of how soon to expect the heavy rains. As we pulled into the parking lot, we knew time was working against us, and we hurried to get our bikes in order and hit the dirt.

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I’m typically a fairly slow rider, but with the clock pushing at my back, I was able to ride faster, with an urgency I typically dismiss. The trail swept under my tires not like a rug but a magic carpet, and I coasted across the dessert, getting snagged on a few cacti along the way. We could see the storm encroaching from all sides, directing us like a conductor when and where to turn, dip, push harder.

We returned to the van as the gap in the clouds closed above us, turning that red sky grey and shedding rain. By the time we got back to our camper, we had to sit in the van for a relative break in the winds and rain, and rain into the camper. We were the only ones staying at Rancho Topanga, and enjoyed the solitude as the wind rocked the camper back and forth and we listened to the rain. Eventually, the storm cleared and while the winds were still strong, the clouds passed and we watched the stars turn to sunrise in the early morning.

That next day, we expected a windstorm, but it died down to something much more manageable. The gas station fixed its pumps, so we filled up immediately, knowing everyone in town would be lined up to get gas while the town was still supplied. We wanted to go on another mountain bike ride, but first took a moment to walk the dog and enjoy the town a little. Terlingua is partially a ghost town, with ruins rejuvenated into coffeeshops and bars, campsites and homes, and of course a graveyard that continues to replenish.

We eventually made it back to the trails and rode the whole 14 mile outer loop. Despite the wind, it was a great ride and the first time in a long time I continuously thought, “I am a mountain biker, I am mountain biking, I am riding trails that other mountain bikers ride.” It sounds silly, but as someone who has had to get off her bike on most every trail ride recently, I made the choice each time to turn back at moments of doubt and ride what I had thought was beyond my skill level. It’s funny how much more fun trails are to ride when they are actually ridden.

On the way out of Terlingua, the winds eventually died down and we made it back to Marfa, to again camp under the stars and mysterious lights. Unsure of the light that hides in my own darkness, for at least a brief moment, I was impressed by it.IMG_0298

Marfa, City of Lights

When we stopped in Memphis, we met a couple who told us to stop in Marfa and stay at El Cosmico, a spacey tripped out trailer lodge, like a fancy hostel or outdoor hotel. In Austin, the opinions were mixed: Marfa is full of hack artists who couldn’t make it in New York and trust funders who are trying to build their Instagram following while running a boutique that sells $80 t-shirts; Marfa is a cool little town full of young artists who want more space to be creative; Marfa is boring and missable. Lots of conflicting stories about this small town, some from people who had never been there. I was most excited about the story of the lights of Marfa, bouncing, glowing orbs that bounce along the horizon line at night, at about shoulder height, inexplicable as all things of beauty tend to be.

We had a difficult time leaving Austin, having difficulty finding someone to work on our van, since it has East Coast rust. In fairness to the van, its rust passes all Pittsburgh tests; but Texas just wasn’t ready for us, I guess.

We got to Marfa’s light viewing area well past dark, and boondocked for the night. It was surprisingly cold, but there was a new moon and the milky way swept across us like a fever and we sat under it, unable to count stars but only subtract from them the planets and supernovas that pulsed red in the night. The lights themselves were much lower, and if they hadn’t been there since the Aztec people and possibly before, I would attest that they were headlights from an unknown road, people with flashlights out hunting too late and lost. But they are something else in the universe, undeterminable and possibly better that way.

The next day we headed to El Cosmico to find out about camping and to hand over the caramels our friend Emily at Betterdays Caramel Confections gave us to deliver to Brad, the maintenance supervisor and an old friend of hers. Brad and his friends were definitely the best thing about Marfa, and El Cosmico wasn’t what we had expected, but once we spend an evening at the local watering hold with them before cooking a meal at the outdoor communal kitchen, where no one came out to say hello and listen to music and drink with us, we got it: El Cosmico is a place for people who need their vibe constructed for them. Once that clicked, then the overpriced vintage campers, teepees, and yurts made sense; the vintage repurposed cleaning vehicle and the $30 incense made sense; the bountiful free fair trade coffee and soft jams and twilight glistering walkways and unused platforms all made sense. We appreciated the fairly affordable place to cook food and take a shower, and left town as quickly as possible, headed straight to Terlingua.

Austin City Limits (for the love of play)

The funny thing about road trips is that the immediate surroundings don’t change all that much. The weather may change, for example, but the temperature is the same. So I didn’t truly feel like I was in Texas until I stepped out of our van onto the field behind our pal Josh’s house and smelled the dry sagebrush and juniper that settled in the air. We plugged into an electric extension chord, took the dog for a walk along the country road that has no shoulder and no street lights, and locked up to head into the city for the night. Josh lives about 12 miles outside Austin, and the change from rural to urban was a little unnerving, coming from a week on the road, and even years before that living in a quiet little oasis in the center of Pittsburgh with no one coming or going but those of us who live there. I’d forgotten what a real city feels like, and it took me a moment to get into the rhythm of not responding to every doorman who shouted out beer prices and show lineups, every homeless person who asked for change demanded money.

It seems like everyone we know has moved to Austin, though Josh is from the area and our friend Joe’s dad lives just outside of town. We met Joe at a little vegan burger joint called Arlo’s, a little trailer in the parking lot of a hip and dimly lit bar. Joe warned it was going to be the best burger I’d ever had in my life and he may be right. The edges were a bit dry (sorry), but the style was classic Big Mac style, with vegan bacon, and it tasted like a family treat after my sister had a basketball game when we were little kids (we weren’t really fed fast food growing up except on rare occasions, and by the time I was able to buy it on my own, I was vegetarian).

Our friends Carousel from Pittsburgh just happened to be playing a show just across the street at Beerland, so we went for a walk to explore the neighborhood and ended up back at Beerland, just as other friends were starting to show up and the band arrived. There are few things as comforting while living on the road, whether it be a longterm lifestyle change like we made or a cross-country band tour (or hell, just a show at a bar different than what you usually play at), as seeing familiar faces who are happy to see you. Carousel had a few mishaps along the way, between a lineup change and a broken van, and it was nice to see that they had at made it so far south to Austin City Limits. We weren’t sure ourselves if we were going to make it (well, says Evan), between the bad weather, bad roads, and the bad luck that seems to hover over the Northeast region like a cloud. But from here on out, there should be smoother sailing for all of us.

The next day, we rode bikes through the city and along the dusty, curvy riverside bike paths to see our friend Emily, who runs (among other things) Butter Days Caramel Company. Texas has generous laws regarding small businesses and food preparation, and unlike Pennsylvania where an industrial kitchen is required, all one needs is a clean, pet-free cooking area. Lucky for Austin, because her caramels are perfect. Emily got into caramels because she used the process of making the confections as a teaching tool when she taught people how to roast coffee in Portland, Oregon. As it turns out, she’s great at both and while she is still heavily involved in Austin’s coffee culture, her caramel business has taken off. Her sweet treats can be found these days at most coffeeshops and some small markets. The name comes from a letter her grandfather wrote her one Christmas, telling the story of growing up during World War 1. His family would save all the butter rations for the weekend, calling the delicious two days the Butter Days of the week.

We are fairly remote out here by Josh’s house, so we can’t commute by bicycle as much as we’d like to, so we’ve gone on a few bike rides for the pure love of riding. We first hit up Georgetown Lake’s Jay Hoggs trails (which I wrote about here), and then went on a road ride along country roads where we were chased by two dogs. it was worth the agony of defeat on the trails and the fear of being bit on the road for the untouchable beauty of this section of Texas. Sure, the cows along the side of the road are going to be killed pretty soon and turned into hamburger, but they sure are peaceful creatures to come across on the road. Today, we rode a different park, and it was crowded from all the Austinites enjoying the beautiful Sunday afternoon, but the trails were perfect and it was some of the most fun mountain biking I’ve ridden in a while. I’d love to go back there again, if only I can remember the name of the park.

Emily had told us Austin is becoming the city of donuts, and I believe her. There is an independent donut shop on almost every corner, and even Voodoo Donuts has come down here to get a piece of the jelly-filled action. We have been doing our part to make sure every bakery feels welcome in this town, so it’s a good thing we’ve been riding as much as we have.

Right now, sitting outside our camper, watching the sun begin to set on the farmland that stretches out in front of my for ever, a marching band is playing somewhere in the distance, with Tejano music playing, possibly with the band and possibly from our next door neighbor’s house. A woman gets on a megaphone occasionally and shouts out in Spanish. It could be a school program, it could be a protest. We are too far away for me to understand what she’s saying or what’s going on. If this was Boston, I’d assume it was a protest, but here in Austin, people may just be making noise for the love of play.