Travel Blog: West Texas

It gets strange in West Texas. Five nights, and none of them normal.

And I’m no stranger to Texas. I’ve been here all 32 years of my life, in fact. And I think I have a good idea of how outsiders view my state – cowboys, conservatives, football, and tinges of Mexico.

This is not that Texas. After 32 years, this isn’t even my Texas. Not yet.

This is a slow dance with a cactus. This is a Texas-satire that somehow means more than the object of its humor. Yeah, this is fierce independence. This is deserts and guns and horses and saddles. But it’s also self-aware. It’s not basic, it isn’t something you nod at condescendingly from your train window (“oh, how quaint!”)

It’s challenging. It’s threatening. It’s intelligent, it’s raw. This is West Texas.

Day 1

So, I’m Scott Kelly. I write existentialist fiction novels, and I have a dad who has a lot to do with those books. I somehow failed to take a single good picture of him this entire trip, but rest assured he planned it all. He drove half of it, and we undertook the journey in his car. Many of the photos you’re about to see came from his camera.

Talbot Kelly has been out here multiple times for work and play, and set the agenda for the road trip. But he knows me – of course he knows me – and if you know me as well, you should enjoy this as much as he knew I would.

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Das Mercedes-Benz. C300; turbo-charged for your pleasure. It’s teched out, and practically drives itself – handy, on a 1600 mile trip. And I don’t mean “it practically drives itself” the way TV commercials in the 80’s used that. I mean it will steer itself around corners, warn you if you drift out of lanes, and come to a complete stop and then accelerate again based on the speed of the car in front of you.

The first leg of the journey was basic: the escape from civilization. We drove down out of Austin and into San Antonio, the space now a battleground between the two competing metropolitan’s suburbs. From San Antonio, we aimed west – into the countryside. Here, things started to look considerably more rural. More western.

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Then, a neon yellow sunrise on the horizon. Could it be? I’ve been eating these chips since college, and we found genesis. Yes, it’s the actual Julios store/restaurant. For the uninitiated, they’re a popular Texan chip that tastes somewhere between a Nacho Cheese Dorito and a real corn chip.

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Okay, it was actually pretty average.

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Full of Julio’s magical chip dust. Probably…

Then it all started to get more No Country for Old Men. Which is fitting, because they actually filmed a chunk of that movie here. Adding to that sense of far-west lawlessness was the fact that every third car we saw was a border patrol agent. We went through a checkpoint, though no one seemed too interested in the two of us.

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Where you walk ten miles across the desert to the nearest plant, and it’s more weapon than vegetation.

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A good place to fall to your death.

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Roads were getting more interesting the further we went.

This was the outskirts, and we ended the first day on the border into desert madness.

Marathon isn’t really a town – it’s a stretch of highway, basically, with some dirt roads behind it. However, it does host an incredible hotel. The Gage. It oozes Southern charm, and actually brings along a four-star restaurant and pretty well-known Austin chef. I’ll forgive the restaurant its cringeworthy name (the Twelve Gage…) because it wound up being some of the best food we ate on this trip. Granted, later in this trip we were satisfied scooping cold potato hashmush and paper-thin origami turkey-bacon out of stale rewarming trays. There’s not much to eat in this part of the country, and the concept of paying more money for smaller servings of higher quality food hasn’t really caught on. You can get single slop, or pay 10% more for a double serving of slop, but that’s where your options end.

But, not at the Gage.

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The Merc was not out of place here.

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The Gage courtyard.

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Classic fascia.

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Hey, the new iPhone has some new tricks.

Day 2

Each morning on this trip, I tried to do a little three or four mile run around whatever town we woke up in. Today marked my first run, and I was rewarded for stumbling over dirt roads with this. I present, the ugliest building I’ve ever seen:

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I half expected a little train to ride out of here with a group of kids on it – surely this is a theme park attraction and not an actual building.

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What… what the hell, Marathon? It looks like a carney’s fever dream melted.

It turns out you can drive straight from Marathon, through Big Bend, and come out at Terlingua (our second stop.) Dad didn’t know this, and I didn’t either, but it wound up a happy accident that we drove about fifty miles across the center of the iconic National park.

It’s a different world out here. It’s been uncharacteristically rainy, but despite the green you’ll see here, it’s very much a desert. A desert with mountains, but not the climbing sort. These mostly seem to be made of great piles of brittle shale.

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It was lonely out here. The kind of lonely where you can walk into the center of the road, lay down, and take a photograph without catching a glimpse of another car.

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The kind of lonely where you can walk off, bury a family member, and erect a small wrought iron fence around the grave.

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The kind of lonely where you can walk off, erect a sign for your state park, and… okay, I’ll stop.

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Then the real mountains started.

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Guh.

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Big Bend. Apparently now home to bears and mountain lion as well.

As we broke free from Big Bend and its vacuous serenity, we stopped for a quick lunch on the way to Lajitas.

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I uniformly hate things written on signs inside stores, but this one gets a pass.

We didn’t stay the night in Lajitas, but we did stop long enough to take some shots of this guy. Check it out – goat mayor!

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Mr. Mayor, a tornado ripped through Lajitas and we can’t greenlight the disaster recovery funds from FEMA unless you sign here! Or eat the paperwork, that’s fine too.

That goat mayor is weird as hell. I get that. But it’s a tourist attraction; I’m sure they have some system in place where they won’t need the mayor to sign off on important decisions. It’s a joke to get people like me to take pictures.  He is finally elected, and it’s all to get laughs. Same reason I got into the National Honors Society in eighth grade. I feel you, goat.

But then we left the tourist attraction of Lajitas, and went to Terlingua. Terlingua is strange. We went to many strange places on this trip, but none as outlandish or outrageous as Terlingua. There is no method to this madness; it’s not put together to be a “ha-ha.”  It’s not guided by visionary artists or bitter libertarians. It’s just insane.

This is a real desert community – this is a place for people who went for a hike through Big Bend, stopped, and decided “I live here now.” Population of maybe a hundred people, and about fifty of those sleep in tents around the skeletal remains of hundred-year-old mining camp. Then there’s this guy:

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Take a minute to soak this one in. Yeah, that appears to be a sunken submarine (it’s not) and an old sailing ship (It was.) Tiny statue of liberty, nice to see you there.

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View from our cabin.

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Remains of the ghost town.

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Hello, desert cat. Are you friendly?

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Yep.

We ate dinner that night at one of Terlingua’s [only] restaurants. That’s okay though, because it was awesome. Locals and their five dogs (a piece) out front, and live music inside. Food was decent, but the crowd was awesome. We wound up getting to know both couples eating on either side of us. One of them was even from Port Lavaca, like me – and he admitted it, too!970FC230-4B96-4045-AC61-46D2A310C039.JPG

I woke up that morning for another jog and snapped my favorite shot of the trip. FD681C50-19CB-44CA-9C4E-CF4861965CFE.JPG

Day 3

This is TX FM 170. Consistently ranked one of the top twenty roads in the entire United States. It winds, it weaves, it dodges and banks – and to your left is the Rio Grande. Just past that? That’s Mexico. I would have killed to have been in my car for this stretch, but the Merc held its own. Its got twenty different ‘modes’, and luckily one is called “Sport+.”

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And then at the end, there’s this rock that looks like an elephant.

So, we went straight through Marfa and into Valentine. Valentine is a nothing town, a ghost of a bone. We saw a lot of economic despair in this part of Texas, and Valentine was ground zero for the wrath. Maybe that’s why an artist commissioned this $80k installation on the completely flat, straight, barren highway (laden with crows, by the way). It’s a Prada store, designed to be a reasonable facsimile of a Paris boutique. Except behind it there are cows, to the left there is roadkill, and to the right there is a floundering town that can’t muster a single gas station. The idea is that this place will erode into the ground, destined to thoroughly confuse anthropologists and archaeologists for thousands of years to come. Kind of a time capsule filled with trick snakes… or, a poignant message about consumerism in a place that mostly sees that word as excuse to ask for their first Wal-Mart.

I love this sort of art. Seriously. It is something that no one would notice in a strip mall in Venice or even downtown Austin. Cut that store out, paste it here, and suddenly it’s a striking introspection on Texan life. The setting becomes a piece of the canvas on which this thing is painted.

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Stylish young lady not an actual piece of the exhibit – in fact, the exhibit was pretty packed with youngish folks who’d driven the hour long round-trip out of Marfa to witness it.

Marfa

Marfa is minimalist. Sort of. It’s a boom-town all out of gas, taken over by minimalist artists in the 1950’s. It’s one of the best looking small towns in Texas – by a very large margin – and I think I’ve seen a good portion of them.

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This church is engaged in a stylistic war with itself. Steeple?! It’s all steeple, fool!

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This is our hotel, the Paisano. It’s famous because a movie was filmed here in the 1950’s called “Giant.” It starred James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. It was James Dean’s only really big movie before he died, so it is a culturally important film. But it seems to be at war with the rest of Marfa. The rest of Marfa is fine with having a bunch of famous artists move there to create interesting minimalist art and put excellent typography on their buildings. This place is still pushing the tiny taste of Old Hollywood they received seventy years ago. Don’t stay at the Paisano; it seems to be at war with the rest of Marfa. Also, worst bathroom I’ve ever seen in a hotel room.

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Marfa: our buildings do what it says on the can.

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This picture sums up this part of Texas for me. On the left, a historic building from a long-forgotten boom economy. On the right, a postmodern art gallery. Between them, about twelve inches. Around them, about a thousand miles of space.

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Donald Judd was the first megafamous artist to move to Marfa. He’s also an extreme minimalist, which is the reason the rest of Marfa has a minimalist bent. I love minimalism; I even consider myself a sort of minimalist novelist. This is one of many cement boxes he dropped in a field outside of his bunker-turned-gallery. I love the way the sun rising across the field casts detail inside the boxes.

Day 4

Balmorrhea  springs

This is a natural spring up in the mountains of West Texas. You know it’s not a swimming pool, because there are fish in it.

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If this place caters my party, do they bring their own drunk yokel?

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That’s a damn fine looking gas station. That’s out of business.

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Church, meet mountain.

On my walk, I came across another elected dignitary. Could tell by his swagger that he held the collective weight of his town’s votes. Maybe not a mayor, but still…

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Probably just a Comptroller or County Clerk.

Day 5

Fort Davis is home to a cutting-edge observatory. And “cutting-edge” means a lot more when it’s surrounded by a raw countryside. Observatories tend to be built in remote parts of the world, because the light and radio pollution is low, so they operate optimally. They also really feel like science fiction when you’ve just left a miserable faux-50’s diner with unfathomably bad turkey bacon and driven straight up a mountain to be greeted by a glowing dodecahedral dome built by multiple world-class universities to uncover the true nature of dark energy.

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Maximum overscience!

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That is just the greatest name. Give this man his own brand of kid’s cereal, stat.

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I love a road runner, but I’ve never been this close. They’re such prehistoric, capable animals. I don’t know if I ever see them as roadkill; they’re too sharp for that.

Alpine

Alpine was the last stop on our trip, and also the largest city. While it was beautiful, and interesting, it wasn’t quite as mad as the last few stops (particularly Marathon, Terlingua, and Marfa). However, no other town left my knees knocking quite the same. You’ll see why.

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Opportune sunlight over the church.

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The lobby of our hotel, The Holland.

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The courtyard of The Hotel.

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I’m a podiatrist. Why is that so hard to understand? Look, this profession has been around for centuries, I shouldn’t have to… god damnit, fine. I’m a foot doctor, okay? No, the baby doctor is across the street. Between the pee doctor and the ladyparts doctor.

If you know me very well, you probably know I like cars. I like the way they sound; I like the way they look. I like driving them down twisty back-roads and lonely highways. I like how brilliant engineers from all over the world compete to try and solve the same set of universal problems. So when I saw this sports car museum in Alpine (“The Stable Performance Cars“), I had to go in.

It was $2 to get inside, and we were the only people there. It turns out Carroll Shelby – the car designer/legend best known for a long line of special Ford Mustangs – had a racing team down here. Inside were a series of cars he had a hand in designing: about ten different Shelby Mustangs…

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This Dodge Viper…

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His signature on a candy-apple red Mustang hood.

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…. and this, a 2005 Ford GT in the Terlingua racing colors. Right now, this car is worth somewhere north of $350,000 dollars. It can easily sprint over 200 mph. This line of cars is the only real American supercar, originally designed by Ford in the 1960’s to crush Ferrari. And it did just that. They’ve brought it back twice in recent history to continue the tradition.

So the owner watched us (okay, me) gleefully skipping around his museum, gushing over the badass muscle cars. Then he asks, “Hey, do you want to sit in the GT?”

Yes, yes I do want to sit in the Ford GT. I’m fascinated with cars, how can I pass up the opportunity to sit in one of the most expensive cars I’ve ever seen? The last time I saw this model of car, it was behind velvet rope in a museum.

So he lets me sit inside. I’m happy; it feels awesome. Sitting on the cement. Everything is ludicrously complicated, like Jackson Pollack splattered out a bunch of knobs and switches. I mean, the door has its own roof, for some reason… I suppose to lobotomize you in the event you slam the door too quick after getting inside.

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Roof-doors. Never really caught on. Happy Scott, though.

Then he drops this on me: “We haven’t started it up today, why don’t you revv it up and give it some gas?”

Now you have to understand, I literally cannot say no to this. Even if it meant smashing this priceless supercar into ten slightly less priceless muscle cars inside a tiny museum. And this guy is insanely generous to let me do so. If I owned this car, I’d be standing on top of it in camo pants while clutching my assault rifle: don’t look at it too hard, you’ll wear down the paint.

But I’m not going to question the generosity of the owner. So I say yes; I start the car (after some fiddling.) And I revv it.

And I sort of, on a conceptual level, know how to drive a standard – I’ve driven them around for a few miles recently. But I’ve never owned one, and I’ve never driven anything like this before. So, it’s not until I release the clutch to turn the car off, that I realize it’s been in first gear the whole time. It lurches forward a few inches, then stalls; my heart crashes then reboots.

No pressure. Just nearly destroyed this kind man’s prized possession. Still, no harm done, and I got a taste of a supercar legend.

Day 6

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My dad and I get along tremendously. This is the first, and likely only, blog you’ll see from me that I didn’t plan. But I couldn’t have planned a trip half this well, either. He doesn’t have this particular method of promoting his adventures, but he has his own circle of admirers, of which I’m one. He’s a hell of a guy in a hell of a place that outsiders would describe as hell, and I’m just happy he let me come along for the journey.

From here, it was the usual: survive a seven hour slog through boring Texas highways in an effort to get home at a reasonable hour. We did see a small hill that looked exactly like a woman’s breast, but I’ll spare you the indecency of that bit of geography.

Texas has the unique responsibility of being five or six worlds under one set of map lines. These treasures remain unassailed because they’re mostly uninhabited and ignored, but they’re the responsibility of this state. Given my experience with our governance, my only hope is that they remain under the radar – something granted to the people willing to seek it out. Or in my case, people drug along by those who know best.

Thanks for reading.

Enjoy this blog? You can get a whole lot more Scott Kelly by buying one of his novels. Click here for more information.



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