Monday, December 06, 2010

Eat Gravel and Rock the Hanukkah Bush

This weekend was an exercise in sensory overload. There were highs and lows, laughter and tears (well, technically, I was whimpering), and everything in between.
It all started off like a General Mills International Coffee commercial circa 1980s ("Celebrate the moments of your life!") when my friend Rose and I met at the new bakery on South First and Annie. We talked and laughed all morning over espressos, flaky pastries and Oranginas. Eventually Rose announced she had some work to do and had to go. Because it was such a beautiful day, I announced that I was going to jog around Town Lake -- and by jog I mean walk. 
Enjoy your trip; see you next fall!
When I got down to the trail, I bumped into two buddies of mine. I ended up jogging (for reals) much farther than I had planned. It was OK though; I was enjoying the impromptu visit with friends. Georgia said goodbye to us at the Mopac bridge, and then Melissa and I continued running eastbound, chatting away about whatever. I remember thinking that it actually felt good to be running again. My legs were a bit tired, but I had my breath and I was feeling pretty solid and strong.
And that's about when I ate gravel.
I wish I could say that I was on the greenbelt, running intervals up the Hill of Life, or something hard core like that, but My downfall (literally) was stubbing my toe on the Zilker kiddie train track where it crisscrosses with Town Lake trail. As Melissa put it, I looked like a ball player sliding into home plate to win the game. I actually bounced on my belly (bounced, people!) before coming to a complete sliding stop. Oh, and I was wearing a tennis skirt. Awesome.

Once the dust settled, I rolled onto my back and sat up. Everything stung like a sum bitch. I had two bloody knees, two ripped open palms, and my left elbow was dripping blood onto my legs. I immediately knew that nothing was broken, or even sprained, but the sight of the blood and all the stingy and throbbing made me want to wail like a baby. I opted instead to quietly whimper as I picked the rocks out of my skin. Here's a snapshot of my elbow the following morning after I doctored it. I might have gone overboard on the doctoring materials, but I had zero first-aid stuff in my house and I didn't know what to get, so I got a little of everything -- gauze, hydrogen peroxide, band-aids, Neosporin, non-sticking wrap tape, and saline wound wash that squirts from a can. I actually feel safer now, knowing that I have wound wash in the house. Apparently, I'm a kiddie train wreck waiting to happen.

That's a nicely trimmed bush you got there
Saturday night I went over to my friend Ellen's house. She's half Jewish, so she hosted a potluck dinner and Hanukkah bush decorating party. A Hanukkah bush looks mysteriously like a Christmas tree. And by mysteriously, I mean exactly. The evening started off with a feast to die for -- a savory roast, yams, green beans with sliced almonds, gratuitous assortments of fine cheeses, potato latkes, a salad with roasted brussel sprouts and beets. It was YUM-MY. After dinner we decorated the "Christmas Tree I mean Hanukkah Bush" and commenced to oohing and aahing once the last ornament was placed. It occurred to me that every year there's a specific moment when the holiday spirit hits me, and this year it hit me at Ellen's potluck. Thanks, Ellen! You're the best.   

Saturday, November 27, 2010

You have a call on Line 1. Some guy named God...

With age, I've gotten better at perking up and listening whenever "The Universe" -- call it a higher power, God, whatever -- speaks to me. I know it's happening when the exact turn of phrase or unfamiliar name keeps turning up in conversations, on the radio or in something I'm reading -- and usually it's within a 48- to 72-hour period or a short string of days. By the second or third instance, I smile inwardly because I realize what's happening and that I need to investigate whatever is being put in front of me -- explore it, read more about it, take action.
The latest example involves Sufi poets, specifically the 13th Century poet and mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi. I'm sure many of my well-read friends are already familiar with Rumi, but somehow he has never crossed my radar -- until now.

I recently started taking a morning yoga class that always culminates with the instructor reading a poem from the same hardcover book that crackles with age every time she opens it. I'm picky when it comes to poetry (it can be so trite or so abstract and personal to the author that it does nothing for me), but every poem she has read from this book has felt comfortable and familiar or exactly what I needed to hear. After the second class, I went up to the instructor and learned that she was reading from "The Gift" by Hafiz, a Sufi poet.

Fast forward to a few nights ago... I was in bed and reading the final chapter of "A Geography of Faith: An Alter in the World." The last passage of this book is a quote with a footnote. The quote resonated with me because I had just spoken with a musician friend of mine who confessed to me that he was feeling disenchanted with his craft. The quote went like this:

Today like every other day we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

I looked up the footnote and saw that the author was Rumi (yet another Sufi poet!). I picked up my phone and texted this quote to my friend. Within minutes he replied and thanked me. Said it was exactly what he needed to hear.

The following day I was driving home from Thanksgiving with my family and halfway listening to NPR. I was a bit distracted and in a melancholy state of mind -- just feeling acutely aware of how random and fleeting life can be. In particular, I was thinking about how my life at the moment is going so, so well -- yet there are people close to me who are suffering - both in small ways that chip away at one's spirit and in big, horrible ways that make a person question God. As my mind was racing through this stream of consciousness, the radio commentator's words suddenly overrode everything and demanded my full attention. He was reading a poem called "The Guest House."

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

These words wrapped around me like a warm blanket. I had to know who this writer was. I turned up the volume on the radio, waiting to hear the author's name. It was Rumi. I looked skyward through my windshield and smiled.

A couple days later on Saturday morning I was curled up in a chair with a cup of coffee and a book called "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann. It won a National Book Award, and I certainly can see why. McCann has a great command of the English language, describing very ordinary things in extraordinary ways. I've actually been reading the book with a pen in hand, just so I can underline passages that I think are particularly clever. ANYWAY, so I'm reading this one story about a hooker in the Bronx (McCann's book is a collection of short stories that take place in NYC; eventually the stories start overlapping and weaving together to form a bigger picture - I love that!) and this hooker is talking about this trick she had with a man who took her to a lavish hotel for an entire week. He didn't want to touch her; he just wanted her to lie naked and read poetry to him -- in particular, Persian poems that spoke of ancient Syria and Persia. 

So, I'm passively reading through this scene in McCann's book and then my heart leaps when I stumble across:

I left with eight hundred bucks and a copy of Rumi. I never read nothing like that before. Made me want to have a fig tree.   

Call me crazy or a romantic or whatever, but I'm 100 percent certain now that this is divine intervention. Apparently The Man Upstairs thinks I'd benefit from reading a little Rumi right about now. So, it's off to BookPeople I go!


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bonga Bonga hits the Kingdom of Tonga

In August, I was incredibly fortunate and honored to be invited as a "last-minute entry" on a sailing adventure in the South Pacific Ocean. (Someone had to back out of the trip. I selflessly volunteered to take his place. It's the very least I could do, right?) ANYWAY, some friends of mine who are experienced sailors organized the entire trip, which involved bareboat chartering three 42-foot catamarans (each outfitted with 4 cabins and 4 heads, a kitchenette and a small salon). "Bareboat," by the way, means that you crew your own boat. It has nothing to do with nudity; albeit, there was some rum-infused flashing of arses at one point during the trip. It could have been a South African and a New Zealander, but I'm not naming any names.

ANYWAY, there were Austinites on two of the boats, and one boat full of Kiwis (our buddies from New Zealand). Together, we set sail among the 171 pristine islands that make up the Kingdom of Tonga. Specifically, we sailed among the island group known as Vava'u. Look it up on Google Maps. Go ahead. I'll wait.... You see those dots that look like someone spilled crumbs on a blue rug? That would be the Kingdom of Tonga.

We traveled for 1.5 days from Austin to LAX to Auckland, NZ, to Tonga to Vava'u. The journey was worth every recycled breath of stagnant airplane air I ingested. I offer Exhibit A at right as proof. Observe, dear friends, the Bonga Bonga Files. (Click on the image to view the entire album.)

By the way, "Bonga Bonga" is a term coined by the founding fathers of these annual sailing adventures that take place in far-flung corners of the world. The founding fathers are the awesomest skipper ever, Mr. Michael Landry of Austin, Texas, and the greatest sailor south of the equatorial divide, Mr. Grant Headifen of Auckland, New Zealand. I want to take this very public opportunity to once again say thank you to these guys for an amazing seven days of sailing in Paradise. (And, yes, that's paradise with a capital P.)
This trip represented many firsts for me: first time in the Southern Hemisphere, first time living on a boat, first time to ingest kava, first time to use a hand-pump toilet, first time to snorkel with sharks, first time to see a whale, first time to use SPF 100, first time to see the Southern Cross, first time to sit at a table with a glazed pig staring me in the face, first time to speak Tongan ("Fakamolemole!"), and I'm sure there are many more firsts that escape me here.

I liken the whole experience to camping at sea. We took military-style showers, woke every morning to witness the sun rise, and ended each day watching the moon climb into the night sky. My boat mates and I morphed into sun-kissed creatures (I heart being tan!), and we lived in our bathing suits. None of the women bothered with makeup or their hair. Our days were filled with good conversation, good eating (thanks to my bunkie, Allison "Party Pants" Waddell), world-class snorkeling, gratuitous napping and sunbathing, sarong wrapping, vodka mixing, anchor lowering, anchor raising, dinghy beaching, rum drinking, making jokes, making toasts, collecting shells, reading maps, reading books (thanks, in particular, to Natalie for her excerpt readings from Chelsey Handler's "My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands"), beer drinking, applying and reapplying sunscreen, drinking coffee, boat bacon!!!, laughter, and nicknaming. (It seemed we all earned nicknames before the week was over. I was dubbed "Geez Louise" because I exclaimed these words upon spilling plastic cups and dishes all over the deck.)

Yes, it was a one-of-a-kind adventure, hands down my best impulse buy of 2010. I brought a journal and recorded some moments in writing. These, I'll share with you here:
Scenes from The Flying Fox Cafe
The women behind the counter at The Flying Fox cafe in the Tonga International Airport are amazed at all the travelers who suddenly have descended upon the premises -- Americans, New Zealanders, Japanese ... and a few Tongans. I was told that only 17,000 tourists a year visit these islands. The oldest of the cafe employees (the kind-faced woman who served me an ice-cold coconut with a straw in it) has a camera in her hand. She points it at the modest collection of tables in her cafe, which is now full of people of all dialects and color. Everyone is giddy with excitement. There's chatter about snorkeling and sailing. People are getting to know each other. Bursts of laughter here and there.
I walk into the gate area just outside the cafe. A group of Tongan men and women dressed in black shirts and woven grass skirts sit quietly. I take a seat next to a man whose fingernails are overgrown and clodded with dirt. He smells of tobacco. I read my book. He sips his coffee. "We're going to a funeral," he says, and I realize he is talking to me. I ask if the deceased is a relative of his. No, he says. He was a friend.
Apparently he was only 40 years old, a farmer who died unexpectedly. The talk among friends and relatives is that he wasn't handling his pesticides correctly. I nod, as if this sounds logical enough. I tell him that I'm sorry for his loss. He says thank you and then abruptly stands up, wishes me a good trip and steps outside to look at the airplane parked on the tarmac.
Not Your Mama's Lullaby
I've decided to sleep on deck under the stars tonight. I bring my pillow and blanket out to the trampoline. It's close to a full moon and I cast a long shadow as I unfurl my blanket and then roll myself up like a burrito. I take stock of the milky streaks of constellations. The boat gently rocks underneath me; the breeze intermittently brushes my bangs away from my forehead. I want to stay awake, stay in this moment, but, man, this is relaxing. My eyes close and I start to drift.

Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train
And I's feeling nearly as faded as my jeans!
A man's voice bellows across the black water. Now several other voices chime in...
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained,
It rode us all the way to New Orleeeans!
Apparently the party isn't over on the Bonga Bonga catamaran that's anchored several meters from ours. I had left the festive gathering 30 minutes early, eager to stake out a place to slumber under the stars back on our boat.
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose!
Nothing don't mean nothing, honey, if it ain't free
And feeling good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues,
You know feeling good was good enough for meeeeee,
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee!

I start giggling and I hear Deb, wrapped in her blanket a few feet from me, giggling too. Judging by the passion and conviction with which these partiers are belting out the lyrics, I don't think the night will be silent for some time. I continue to listen to the string of serenades coming across the water -- everything from John Denver to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Miraculously, I eventually fall asleep, anyway.
Not your mama's lullabies -- but effective, nonetheless.
Morning Routine
Sitting on deck in my PJs and watching the sun come up over the palm trees on the horizon. An orb of soft yellow grows larger, with wispy clouds continuously shaping and reshaping into dramatic displays of pink, lavender and orange. Someone turns on the stereo below deck. Big Head Todd's "Bittersweet" reaches my ears. I smell coffee, onions and bacon. I hear grease frying in a pan. Newby sits a few feet away, elbows resting on knees, a mug of coffee between her hands. I hear Kennedy and Landry at the back of the boat. They're messing with the masks and flippers, talking about a morning swim. A big splash. Some shuffling. Another big splash. I turn back around to face the sun, which now hangs several "feet" above the island in front of our boat. I get up from the trampoline and head below deck. Time to get some coffee and put my swimsuit on. It's going to be another good day.
Like Lewis and Clark, Sort Of
We beach the dinghy on a small island whose entire circumference is comprised of white, sandy beach. The interior is thick with palm trees and other tropical varieties. A swirling, chatty flock of birds circles above the treetops. Jared and Deb take seats in the fine sand underneath the shade of the treeline. Langford starts collecting small rocks and making a design in the sand. The two couples pair off for a leisurely stroll. Allison follows the shoreline and collects shells. I follow her lead, staying a few yards behind her, but eventually ending up several yards ahead of her.
I'm enjoying this solo exploration -- just me, my sippy cup of rum and juice and the constant crashing of the waves as I circle to the backside of the island. I come across an intricate arrangement of large, gray rocks -- each measures maybe 8 to 10 feet in diameter. Their surfaces are perfectly smooth and flat, like larger-than-life stepping stones. It makes me think of landscape architecture, and how nature is The Original.

I collect shells and pieces of coral of all colors, textures and sizes. The farther I walk, the pickier I get about my collection. I start swapping out previous finds for better ones. I'm meticulously combing the sand and pebbles under my feet, but intermittently I stop to look up and assess the view in all directions. There are times when I'm the only human in sight. I bet it has looked this way for hundreds - maybe thousands? - of years. The thought sends a tingle up my spine. I must never forget this moment! I'm on a thumbprint of an island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. Pinch me!

I eventually reach the point where I began. I slurp down the last few sips from my Camelbak thermos and join the others. The guys have noticed that the wind is changing direction; we need to get back to our anchored boat. I toss my two handfuls of shells into my empty thermos for safekeeping and follow the others into the dinghy.
We motor across the choppy turquoise water toward the Tigress, leaving behind the birds, still circling and swirling above the treetops.
Peeping Tom
I wake up to find the moon peering in at me through the open hatch above our bunkbed. I meet his silvery gaze for a few seconds and then drift back to sleep.

The Big Race
On my belly in a lounge chair at the Tonga Beach Resort, I peer over the top of my book to watch a hermit crab and a lizard race across the beach. The lizard seems to be the clear winner until he suddenly ducks into a hole and the hermit crab steadily waddles past toward an unseen finish line.
The Whole Boy Bird Meets Girl Bird Thing
We're anchored in a cove. Our catamaran faces an island whose trees are various shades of green and yellow. Two white birds catch my eye. They chase each other from tree to tree, swooping, diving and intermittently coasting in sync on the ocean's breeze - their wings broad and still. They duck in and out of sight several times, but always reappear together, never straying more than a few yards from one another.
I keep thinking that this chase will end, but it doesn't. I follow them with my eyes for what seems like 15 minutes. Eventually the chase begins to look more like a well-choreographed dance. I wonder if this is some sort of mating ritual. Am I watching a courtship transpire? You know what they say: The chase is always the most interesting part.  

Friday, July 23, 2010

More West Texas Snapshots

Click on the photo at right to see more images of my West Texas adventure. Also scroll down to read memoirs and observations from my time out west.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Getting My Fix

This house I'm renting includes a mountain bike. It's nothing fancy, but it allows me to get anywhere in town within minutes. I just strap my bag across my shoulders and take off to the grocery store, the bookstore, the coffee shop, wherever. My car sits in the driveway for days at a time, my freckles are coming out in patches across my shoulders, and my legs are always a bit tired. It's a great feeling.
However, I got a flat tire a few days ago, and with no tools (or wherewithal) to fix it, I posted a plea for help on Within a day I had a couple of offers to help. The first was from a girl named Emily. Emily said she could probably fix the tire herself, so we arranged a time for her to come by the house.
When she showed up, I immediately recognized her from a poetry reading I had attended at Marfa Book Company the previous week. I had noticed Emily sitting behind me because she was wearing these eyeglasses with gi-normous O-shaped frames that would make Elton John go bananas. This is how it is in Marfa; the same faces keep popping up, wherever you go. As one of my Marfan friends told me, "The guy who seats you at the restaurant is the same guy who rings you up at the grocery store. Everyone has two or three jobs -- all of them part time or just some of the time."
So, Emily showed up - minus the Elton John eyewear, but not without a conversation piece. Over a black bra, she wore a thin, white T-shirt with the words "Fuk Nation" defiantly scrawled across her chest in black marker.
Wallflower she is not.
I welcomed her into my house and showed her my bike. She deftly analyzed the damage and commenced the task of taking the tire off of the bike to work on it. As she did this, we talked -- or rather, I interviewed her, as I often find myself inadvertently doing when I meet new people, particularly when they wear shirts that say Fuk Nation on them.
I learned that she has two undergrad degrees (one in history and another in studio art) and that she speaks fluent Russian and studied in St. Petersburg for a while. So impressive! I thought about how I attended a university whose mascot was a lumberjack and felt it best to keep that to myself.
I then asked her the question that all visitors to this town ask of full-time residents: What were you doing before Marfa and how did you end up here?
Emily, who grew up in Texas, was living in Brooklyn and working as a youth programs coordinator and translator for a Russian arts foundation in NYC. Then she kicked around in Los Angeles for a bit. On a road trip home for the holidays, she discovered Marfa and loved it. She "found herself" applying for a job at the local chamber of commerce and got it, and that was pretty much that.
I thought about where I was at her age (her age being 25). I was living in a small ranching community between San Antonio and the Mexican border and writing for the local newspaper. I had moved there without knowing anyone, because it was the only job offer on the table after graduating from college. My first front-page story was about a rodeo cowboy. We started dating soon after -- a "city mouse meets country mouse" kinda tale that involved numerous highs and lows, a marriage, a divorce and plenty of lessons learned.
What a ride, my twenties! A series of seemingly haphazard experiences that now, in hindsight, appear perfectly calculated because they led me to where I am today. In some ways, it's how I continue to see my life. It makes it easier to accept the parts that don't make sense.
But I digress...
After several minutes of chit-chat with Emily, I realized that she wasn't making progress on the tire. The bike was old and rusty, and the poor girl had toiled so much with the wrench that beads of sweat dotted her forehead. I didn't want her laboring any more on my behalf. I told her we should give it a rest and think of a Plan B.

Emily put the wrench down and thought for a moment. I wondered where Fuk Nation was on the map.
Emily was the first to offer an alternate plan. The nearest bike shop was The Bike Man in Alpine, about 25 miles away. She had a bike part that needed to be returned. Emily said she would lend me her bike rack so I could take my bike to The Bike Man and get it fixed. In return, I could take her bike part back to the shop for her. Sounded good to me.

That afternoon, with Emily's bike rack on my car, I visited The Bike Man, also known as John Elsbury. John shuffled some jobs around to work me into his schedule, and my bike was ready to go within a couple hours. If you're ever near Alpine and your bike needs attention, go see this man.

I was back in Marfa within a few hours. When Emily came by the house to get her bike rack, she invited me to have drinks with her friends. So, that evening I sat at an outdoor table at Maiya's Restaurant, sharing a bottle of Pinot Grigio with Emily and another young woman who also once lived in Brooklyn and now serves as an intern at a local gallery. We talked and laughed until the moon took its spot among the stars.

That evening I pedaled home on my rusty bike with a brand-new tire -- thankful for Emily, for The Bike Man and for life's haphazardness. 

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Balmorhea Sounds

Stretched out on my back in the grass beside San Solomon Springs pool in Balmorhea State Park, I take in the world's biggest breath and then let out the world's biggest sigh. I pull my straw hat down over my face and close my eyes. I take inventory of the sounds:
  • the hum of vehicles on the highway beyond the park
  • the splish-splash of kicking legs
  • the relentless winding up and fading out of harmonizing locusts
  • birds querying and answering amidst the trees
  • the hurried patter of wet feet, the boing-yoing-yoing of a spring board and a bass thump-splash as the fat kid hits the water (I peeked.)
  • "If you want to clear your mask, honey, just press the top, lift the bottom and blow out your nose ... that's it! You did it!"
  • the shuffling of ice in a cooler
  • the steady slap, slap, slap of a football being tossed around
I open my eyes, and through my loosely woven straw hat I see a bird soaring directly overhead. I shut one eye to focus and I watch her drift from one straw picture frame into the next until she disappears from my sight.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Tire Check and Reality Check

Today I decided to drive to Balmorhea State Park for a swim, but before I ventured out, I stopped at a small garage in town to have my tire pressure checked.

At the garage, I parked my car in front of one of bays and walked over to the tiny office. The only mechanic on duty was hunched over a desk and fully engrossed in a pile of grease-stained papers and ledgers. A few seconds passed before I realized the old man had no idea I was standing in the doorway. I took the opportunity to look around and assess.

The clutter that covered his desk had metastasized like a cancerous growth to the surrounding walls. Yellowing photos of -- his children? grandchildren? great-grandchildren? -- were posted amidst children's drawings, expired legal notices and flyers advertising cars for sale. Judging by the hairstyles and clothing of the teens in the photos, I imagined that they were now my age or even older. Probably had kids who were teens.

I looked back at the man. He had put down his pencil and was now assessing me.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't see you standing there." He slowly rose to his feet to face me.

"That's OK," I said. "I've got a car out there. I'd like to get my tire pressure checked. I've been hearing this noise - like, a clicking or a ticking. And it seems to increase in frequency when I accelerate. Maybe it's nothing, or maybe it's something. I really don't know. But I thought I'd better check because I'm driving to Balmorhea State Park today."

The man stood there and made no motion to speak. So, I continued.

"It's a 2006 Saab. It's parked right outside. That's an OK place to park? I mean, do I need to move it into the bay?"

The old man was squinting at me, his mouth shaped in a silent "Eh?" How old was he, anyway? 85? 125?

"...sooo, can you check the tire pressure then?" I wondered if maybe he was a bit senile.

But suddenly the old man came to life. He took one step closer to me and leaned in so his eyes were level with mine.

"Who ARE you?"

His question was so sincere, so joltingly confrontational, that I almost wanted to confess that I was still trying to figure that out.

But instead, I chose a simpler reply.

"Oh, excuse me, sir. My name is Katie Ford. I'm visiting from Austin."

"And you want me to check your tire pressure?"

"Yes, if it's not too much trouble."

The old man spit out a cough. Or was it a laugh?

"Sure, I can," he said. "But your generation is gonna have to learn to do these things. What are y'all gonna do when my generation dies off?"

He paused for my answer. I laughed halfheartedly, not knowing what else to do. He raised an eyebrow and then continued his speech.

"In my opinion, it all started to go downhill in the '60s, and then in the '70s it went like this... "

His hand took a dramatic dive toward the floor.

"And then there were the '80s... ." His voice trailed off as he dismissed the decade with a swat in the air.

I stood silently, a helpless and despicable child of the 70s and 80s.

"So, you're from Austin, huh?" His expression, for the first time, looked friendly.

"Yes, sir."

"What are you doing in Marfa?" The amusement in his voice now unmistakable.

"Well..." I began, but then stopped. Admitting that I was on a "working hiatus" probably wasn't a smart move with this particular audience. "Um, I guess I wonder that myself sometimes."

This time, for sure, it was laughter that came from the old man. He stood there for a moment, clearly amused with himself. Or me. Or Lord knows what.

I smiled apologetically, and the old man pat my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

"Let's go check those tires of yours," he said with a conspiratorial wink that told me I was going to be all right - even if I was a child of the '70s and '80s.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Lost and Found

While having breakfast on the patio of the Chile Pepper Cafe in Terlingua I found an 11-year-old Amtrak ticket stub on the ground under my table. Cari Cain was going from Philly to NYC, apparently, in the fall of 1999. Was this trip a turning point in her life? Had she saved this ticket stub all these years and used it as a bookmark to remind her of that day?

I'd like to think that Cari took a chance in November 1999 - a chance that changed her life forever in ways I'll never know.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Terlingua - Take One. Take Two.

Sam at Upstairs at the Mansion.

Twice while in West Texas I made overnight trips to Terlingua, a ghost town on the Texas-Mexico border that flourished in the early 1900s as a mercury mining town. (Gee, I wonder why most of the population ended up six feet under?)
Both times in Terlingua, I stayed at a place called Upstairs at the Mansion, a ruin of a structure (literally) that stood abandoned for many years until Kaci Fullwood, a visionary Alaskan with Texas roots, transformed it into a charming boutique hotel. Well, to call it a hotel is a bit of an exaggeration, as the mansion offers only two bedrooms that share a full bathroom, a kitchen and a library. However, I guarantee in Terlingua you won't find a more personable proprietor or rooms with such charm. Moreover, the beds are dressed in cozy linens (no nasty motel bedspreads here!), and the whole place is thoughtfully appointed with antiques, found objects and curiosities. Another fun factoid: the town's underground radio station operates out of the mansion. And by "radio station," I mean a marathon-long iTunes playlist that's overseen and broadcast by some locals.
Terlingua: Take One
On the first overnight trip, I was with my friend Samantha ("Sam"), an Australian-born, part-time Marfan by way of NYC. Ya got that? Sam and I had signed up for a full-day canoe trip through the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend and we wanted to get down near the park a day early since the river outfitters required a 7 a.m. start time.
We got to Terlingua around 4 in the afternoon to find Miss Kaci relaxing on the mansion's veranda, which overlooks the entire ghost town. She greeted us like we were old friends, gave us a quick tour of the mansion and then showed us to our room upstairs. We took the opportunity to freshen up a bit and then we moseyed over to the Starlight Theatre for $2 margaritas and $2 tacos. In Terlingua, it's always a happy hour, whether the drinks are on special or not.
Somewhere between margaritas No. 2 and No. 4, the power went out. Our bearded and pierced bartender was quick to explain that this happened sometimes -- and by "sometimes," I'm sure he meant "frequently." Seconds later, a generator kicked in, bringing the ceiling fans, music and frozen margarita machine back to life. Arribe!

Having had our fill of food and libations, Sam and I drove down the road to the neighboring town of Study Butte (that's pronounced Stoody Butte, by the way) to La Kiva, where the locals were putting on a play in the restaurant's outdoor theater. Sure, the actors occasionally forgot their lines, a gal playing a guy kept losing her fake mustache, and someone's dog sauntered onto the set and momentarily stole the spotlight, but it was still entertaining nonetheless -- if not specifically for those very reasons.

By the time the play was over, a nocturnal dome of stars and planets had closed over the Chihuahuan Desert, reminding me of childhood field trips to the planetarium. The gravel parking lot glowed a silvery-blue under the light of a full moon. I felt like we were two astronauts traversing a barren planet.

As Sam and I drove back into Terlingua, we discovered that most every building was still operating on generators or by candlelight. At the mansion, Kaci had left at the foot of the stairs several candles in brass candle holders and a Bic lighter. These we lit before making our way up the stairwell to our room, each step eliciting its telltale squeak along the way.

Kaci also had opened all the windows in our room, but it was still quite stuffy. Even the gauzy window drapes hung motionless, as if frozen in time. Sam and I dressed for bed in the dark and settled in for the night; she graciously took the twin and gave me the double bed. I stretched out on my back above the covers, arms and legs spread wide like I was about to make a snow angel in the sheets. Minutes later I heard Sam's breathing change to that relaxed rhythm of someone fast asleep.

"It's hot," I whimpered to no one in particular.

I looked at the motionless ceiling fan above me and sat up with a start to turn it on before cursing my stupidity. Then I remembered a trick someone once told me. I walked over to the wash basin, turned on the faucet, soaked a wash rag and then wiped down my arms and legs. I returned to my bed, sufficiently cooler and so pleased with my survivalist thinking. Until I was bone dry and hot a minute later.

Somewhere in the midst of intermittent tossing and wash-ragging, I realized that I needed to use the bathroom, which was downstairs. I pictured negotiating a pitch-black stairwell by candlelight and pretended really hard that I didn't have to go. But when nature's call started yelling, I sighed with resignation and reached for the candle holder on the nightstand. I flicked my Bic and made my way to the door.

I paused on the first stair, holding the candle at various angles, trying to figure out which one gave me the best visibility. I discovered that if I bent forward and low to the ground, I could see the stairs and my feet, so this is how I descended -- hunched over and limping forward, one stair at a time, like some kind of modern-day Igor. All I needed were Marty Feldman's buggy eyes.

As I approached the bottom of the stairs, my hand and foot suddenly felt like they were on fire. I looked down to see hot wax pouring over the saucer onto my fingers and my bare foot. Not wanting to wake Sam or Kaci, I dropped a series of silent F-bombs into the night, like a raving mad mime. I managed to do this two more times (spill wax and wildly curse-mime) before making it to the bathroom and back to bed.

Back in bed, I rolled onto my side and fixed my gaze on the full moon that peered back at me through the window. I realized that it wasn't hot anymore -- the air was quite pleasant, actually, and the silence that surrounded me was almost palpable. I don't remember much after that.

At 6:45 a.m., the alarm on my phone went off, marking the beginning of our big day on the river. Sam and I stumbled to our feet and began gathering our things. Precisely three minutes later, all the lights in our room flickered on, the swamp cooler kicked in with a guttural hum, and the ceiling fan wound up to full throttle like the propeller of a prop plane.

Terlingua: We have power.

Sam and I had to laugh. What else could we do?

Terlingua: Take Two
The second time I headed down to Terlingua, it was just Martha Dog and me. We once again stayed at the mansion. It was a Monday, which is 2-fer-1 Burger Night at the Starlight. Kaci had a couple of friends coming in town for it, and she kindly invited me to join them. My "burger buddy" was Alpine City Council Member Mike Davidson. What a great guy. Back in the 1970s, he and a friend started Far Flung Outdoor Center, which operates out of Terlingua and offers all kinds of excursions in the Big Bend area. Kaci, Mike and I were joined by a husband-wife couple from Terlingua and a river guide who makes his home somewhere between Terlingua and Fort Davis, I believe. We sat around the table, enjoying homemade burgers and $2 margaritas. We talked about water rights, small town culture and several other topics that have become blurry with time. It was a perfect way to spend an evening in Terlingua.

After dinner, I went out on Starlight's famous front porch to retrieve Martha Dog, who was passing the time by charming all the passersby -- one of whom apparently fed her her first deep-fried, oversized onion ring. She was working it, I'm sure. "I'm soooo excited to see you." lick lick wag wag "I love you, in fact." lick lick sniff sniff  "Spare a ring for the poor dog?"

Martha Dog and I spent the rest of the evening on the veranda up at the mansion. I stretched out on the futon and rested my head on the festively embroidered pillows. The night air was cool this time, dipping into the lower 60s, because rainy season had come. Martha curled up on the floor beside me, and we watched the lights in the town blink out, one by one, until all that shone were the stars above.

I slept so soundly that night. No candles. No Bic. Just Martha, the moon, and me.

Next morning I walked around the town and took photos of the Terlingua Cemetery and other odds and ends. I stumbled upon a health food store that serves hot tea and espresso. Score! A British woman owns the place, but that day a river guide was minding the store. I bought a latte and some Carr's Ginger Lemon Creme tea cookies and then made my way to the Chile Pepper Cafe for breakfast.

It continued to be a morning of curious discoveries. I found an 11-year-old train ticket stub on the porch of the cafe -- a trip from Philly to NYC. Then the legendary Butch Hancock walked up to the cafe with his son in search of breakfast. I nerded out and asked for a photo with them, and they kindly obliged. I ordered huevos rancheros and did a little reading and journaling. But mostly, I just sat on the porch and stared out into the distance, acutely aware of where I was and simply noticing.

I had to smile. What else could I do?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A Noteworthy Day

FM 170 is a very roundabout way to get from Marfa to Big Bend, but this ribbony stretch of asphalt is notorious for its dramatic and desolate scenery and well worth the extra time behind the wheel. You basically go south from Marfa for about an hour until you hit Presidio at the border, and then you hook a left and drive parallel to the Rio Grande for another two hours until you hit Terlingua.

While making this drive, I stopped in the town of Redford, which is a dot on the map between Presidio and Terlingua. There isn't even a gas station in Redford. Well, technically there's a building that looks like it once functioned as a gas station, but I don't think those tanks have seen petro in years.

ANYWAY, I stopped in Redford because I wanted to say hello to a new friend of mine whom I'd met in Terlingua a few weeks earlier. This thirtysomething artist, originally from California, had moved out to Marfa a few years back to "get away from it all" and then decided that even Marfa was too crowded for her taste. I can't imagine what she'll do if Redford becomes too much of "a scene" for her. A remote island in the South Pacific perhaps?

So, this wonderfully whimsical woman had told me how to get to her place in Redford, should I ever be "passing through." Her directions went something like this:

"Exactly one mile from the city limit sign, you'll see a squatty palm tree on your right -- although it's not very squatty anymore. It has grown some. You'll turn right at the palm tree before the fence line. Follow the fence down the dirt road. Well, it's not really a road, but the ground is level enough to get your car down it. You'll pass a trailer and then you'll see my house."

One day I'd like to live some place where I use vegetation as a directional marker. How cool is that?

So, I followed her directions as I remembered them, and -- lo and behold -- I found her place, exactly as she had described it! Bicycles in various states of repair were strewn about her yard. A symphony of wind chimes blew in the breeze. I knocked on the front door, ready to see her surprised face, but no one answered. I went around to the back of the house to see if maybe I'd have better luck. And that's when I discovered the note she had taped to the back door. It read:

J.D. --

Don't go in my house or feed my cat when I'm not home.

Who was this J.D. character? I certainly didn't want to stick around and find out. Who goes around breaking and entering and feeding felines?! My mind started to race. Was he nearby at the moment? Was he -- GASP! -- watching me right now???

I quickly retreated to the Swedish Land Rocket for a speedy getaway -- but not before leaving my own note. It read:

Dear R,

I was just passing through (no kidding!), so I thought I'd stop by. Sorry I missed you. Take good care!


As I drove away, I kept an eye on her house, which got smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror. I guess I was expecting to see ol' J.D., but he never did show. Probably busy feeding someone else's cats down the road.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Breakfast Serenade

Had pancakes with Nina Simone this morning. Oh, how I love to hear her sing!

Birds flying high, you know how I feel.
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel.
Breeze drifting on by, you know how I feel.

It's a new dawn.
It's a new day.
It's a new life for me
and I'm feeling good.

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel.
River running free, you know how I feel.
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel.

It's a new dawn.
It's a new day.
It's a new life for me
and I'm feeling good.

Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don't you know.
Butterflies all having fun, you know what I mean.
Sleep in peace when the day is done, that's what I mean.

And this old world
is a new world
and a bold world
for me.

Stars when you shine, you know how I feel.
Scent of the pine, you know how I feel.
Oh, freedom is mine, and I know how I feel.

It's a new dawn.
It's a new day.
It's a new life for me.
Oh, I'm feeling good.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

A Chance Encounter

I woke up because I felt light on my face. I opened my eyes in anticipation of morning and found myself face to face with the moon -- its silver-blue light cast across the bedsheets like spilled milk.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Marfa in Snapshots

Here are some images I've taken over the past couple weeks. Click on the photo at right to access the entire Picasa album on Google.