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.