On To Bisbee

The way to get to Bisbee, Arizona is, of course, to get back on that ubiquitous artery, I-10, and head west. A string of trucks pulled out and skirted me as I accelerated from the on-ramp onto the freeway. The dogs, recognizing the syncopated popping of the seams in the road meant we’d be driving for a while, circled their bed a couple of times, plopped down, and were almost immediately snoring. I settled into my comfy captain’s seat and set the cruise control for sixty-five.

About twenty miles past Las Cruces all traffic had to exit for a Border Patrol checkpoint, then it was back onto the freeway. (I’m just going to mention, this seemed odd, since we were around 50 miles from the Mexican border. Lots of cameras trained on us. Lots of armed Border Patrol personnel. A weird moment, for certain.)

The day was bright and sunny, and my eyes couldn’t seem to get enough of the landscape – sharp mountain crags, shades of tan, ochre, brown, beige, alien-looking scrub and cacti. About an hour into the trip I began to notice bright yellow flowers scattered by the highway, first clumps, then whole swatches, then I came up to a rise and looked out, and on both sides of the freeway the New Mexico desert was in full riotous bloom, an egg-yolk yellow carpet as far as the eyes could see.

When I stopped at a rest area I took some pictures, but my efforts were half-hearted. Nothing could capture the wonder, the dazzling flowers overtaking the harsh dry landscape.

Another hour into the trip I came to the turn-off for NM 80, the two-lane highway that would take me south, on into Arizona and to Bisbee. Something felt so familiar to me, and I was trying to put my finger on it when all of a sudden it came to me. In 1963 my father, a business executive, had taken a position as a consultant with a furniture manufacturer in Mexico City, and we drove the whole way there. In his 1960 British Racing Green Jaguar sedan touring limousine. I am not kidding. If ever a trip seemed surreal, that was it, and not just because of the topography.

The tiny enclaves I drove through on the way to Bisbee – five or six houses and a green sign giving the name of the place – reminded me of the Mexican towns where we would stay for the night, a small inn with five or six rooms and maybe a house or two on either side, with the distant mountains looming. And nothing else, for miles and miles.

I was reminded, too, as I continued to drive forward on the road but backward in my memory, of a trip I made to Israel in 1994, when our tour group traveled around the “Negeb,” the southern desert area where the dust and the stony ground resembled a dead planet, and near where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered in a cave in a rocky hillside in the Judean Desert.

Then I recalled the words of my Old Testament professor during my first semester in seminary back in 1986, how he described much of Israel as a barren desolate place, hot and dry, and how the Biblical references of “streams of waters in the desert” in Isaiah and elsewhere were almost laughable, they were so improbable. We were meant to understand the prophet was casting forth a vision of fulfillment of impossible promises the people hoped their God would somehow keep.

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.  (Isaiah 35:5-7)

During that 1994 trip, driving back from the desert toward Jerusalem, I was surprised to look out over the dry valley and see numerous patches of deep green. As we drew closer, we could see irrigation systems and then vegetable and strawberry farms, and roadside stands with baskets mounded high with bright red fruit.

Recent spring rains have transformed the New Mexico desert, and seeing the wildflowers in bloom, I was mindful of the fact that, whether by human hand or the grace of the skies, given the slightest encouragement, signs of life still insist on shining forth.

I pulled into Bisbee mid-afternoon and checked in at the Queen Mine RV Park that overlooks the small quaint town on one side and on the other the abandoned Copper Queen Mine. The dogs were glad to get out and stretch their legs, and the walk in to town took about five minutes.

One of the bars is dog-friendly, so the boys came inside with me while I ordered a local brew and a smoked brisket sandwich. The place has a lovely porch where you can get out of the afternoon sun and the breeze whisks through in nice clean sweeps.

Just as I predicted, shiny happy people keep turning up. Folks who watched the dogs while I made a restroom dash. A young mandolin player who, in exchange for a beer, told me his story of traveling from Ohio to Bisbee. A bartender who has the inside skinny on music and art and food. And a pocket full of dog treats.

And lovely folks from Maine, Pinky and Mike. Mike was sporting a red t-shirt with Pinky’s sister’s restaurant featured front and center, a walking advertisement. The establishment does so much philanthropy that President Obama made a point of recognizing them before he left office. Check it out. The Red Barn. If you are near Augusta, seems like just the place to get great food and help with some great projects.

More on Bisbee next time, as I will be here for several more days. I’m scheduled to meet with some amazing women musicians who will be tearing it up on April 1st in the Bisbee Rotary Club sponsored concert, “Women Who Rock Us.”

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Leaving Las Cruces

(Sunday 3/19) The sun comes up over the mountains here in Las Cruces, but I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve slept well and felt no urgency to crawl past the dogs to view its rising.

We take our time in the mornings – first my trek to the bathroom; then their jaunt to the small fenced-in area where they can piddle and cavort a bit before their breakfasts; then my pour-over coffee ritual; then a crossword puzzle to wake up my brain; then morning notes and writing; then my breakfast.

Sometimes breakfast looks more like lunch.

It is hot here (87° yesterday), the sun brutal. I cannot imagine summers. I would melt into an instant puddle. People who have been here for the winter look parched and leathery. I’m starting to feel that way, too, with humidity hovering around 12%.

The last couple of days the dogs and I have napped in the afternoon, our senses dulled by the heat. I turn on the air conditioner in Roadcinante and shut all the windows, and the only word I can think of that fits is “languish.” For hours. We languish. I have given myself full permission to do this, by the way, even though I am still nagged by that voice that mentions I should be up and doing something.

“You hush up,” I tell that voice and get back to my languishing.

My stay here has been a welcome respite, a place to regroup and sort through notes, finish reading one book (the memoir Devotion by Dani Shapiro) and start another (the novel Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders), and firm up travel plans for the next several weeks. With no agenda here, I’ve barely gotten out and about. I found a great Mexican restaurant, discovered a place to walk the dogs, located a family-owned hardware store where I bought some needed provisions, and popped into a grocery store and stocked up on fruit and veggies.

Each day when I have ventured forth, I cross over the Rio Grande River, which is completely dry. Water is currently being diverted upstream for irrigation purposes, and apparently the river will flow again later this month. I hope so. It’s heartbreaking to look at right now, the wide dry bed with tire tracks in it instead of waves of cool rushing water. Something in me craves that right now, to see green rushes and hear the river’s quiet song and to feel a cool breeze wafting up from the moving surface.

Initially, I was pretty anxious about my own vagueness regarding my travel schedule, but I like how things have fallen into place.

Of course, initially I was anxious – and still am – about a lot of things. I can “awfulize” any situation, my imagination heading straight to disaster. This kind of anxiety has been my companion for my whole life – some years are better than others, but I’ve come to recognize some of it is in the hard-wiring. “You’re just like your father,” my mother would say, and she was right. That man’s brain never stopped whirling, anticipating, imagining, planning.

I’m certain some of my fondness for red wine has to do with the lovely medicating effects, that feeling of my muscles releasing, the tangled things in my brain unspooling.

Of course, my father used to say, “You’re just like your mother.” And he was right, too. My father never languished a day in his life. My mother had it down to an art form.

The flip side of languishing too long in a small RV is that the dogs and I start to get on each other’s last nerves. Well, really, I’m the only cranky one. They are always loving and patient and sweet. I am not.

Sometimes I want to yell at them. “Get out of the way!”

Sometimes I do yell. Then they look at me, their eyes sad and confused. Then I feel like the complete jerk that I am.

Too much languishing looks a little, wee, tiny, tiny, teeny, small bit like depression. Just saying.

Which runs like a slow-moving river of sludge in my family. So it’s good I’ll be leaving later today. It’s time to get moving again, and to be heading somewhere with clear purpose, to Bisbee, Arizona to meet and interview some fantastic musicians.

The thing that goes along with anxiety is a sense of being scattered – my brain firing in several different directions at once. I am still looking for a practice that will help me be more centered – prayer, yoga, meditation – I’ve tried them all. Nothing seems to fit, at least not just yet. I acknowledge new practices take time and discipline.

And I continually have that other voice nagging at me every time I sit down to try, the voice that says, “You’re doing it all wrong!”

Maybe I need to simply trust that what speaks to me speaks to me. Like the constant cooing of the doves – coo-COO…coo-COO…coo-COO – in the early morning, at noontime, at the onset of twilight, that is like a quiet heartbeat, a pulse in the circadian rhythm of the day. From time to time I will pause and listen closely, letting my own heart answer, and for the slightest moment I feel the center, for the slightest moment I hold it.

Maybe there is no right way, maybe there is simply what works for today.

Every morning here at the Las Cruces KOA, after I’ve finished my coffee and before I fix my breakfast, when the behemoth RV’s and giant trailers have finally vacated their spots, a skinny grizzled man starts his beat-up truck, coaxing it to life with several punches to the accelerator, and begins his ritual. Behind him he pulls a sharply-tined cultivator that leaves perfectly lined paths in the sandy pea-gravel. Back and forth he goes, the old truck rumbling. Back and forth he sweeps, back and forth, taking his sweet time, as if he is playing in his own enormous Zen garden, the clean lines rippling out behind him.

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Shiny Happy People

The communal area at El Cosmico

Yesterday I left El Cosmico and Marfa, having stayed a lot longer than I’d planned. Which turned out to be an amazingly wonderful thing that I’ll say more about in a minute.

My intention yesterday had been to drive up and tour Balmorhea, partly because the 28% of my blood that’s Irish vibrated a little at the thought there might be a Gaelic settlement in the midst of the Texas High Desert, and partly because there is a state park with a spring fed swimming pool that is a constant 72° and 25 feet deep, where you can snorkel and scuba, and I toyed with the idea of an afternoon swim. After the hot, dry Marfa days, dust gritting in my teeth, I felt drawn to the place because it sounded cool, verdant, and lovely.

It was, ahem, none of those things. At least not yesterday. And not a Gaelic name, as I discovered, but rather a mashup of the names of the three land promoters who founded the settlement – Balcom, Morrow, and Rhea. I must have had the upcoming St. Paddy’s Day celebration too much on my mind.

I gave it a pass and hightailed ‘er up to I-10, where I slipped in line with a bunch of trucks and set my brain to auto-pilot, driving the couple of hundred miles toward Las Cruces.

Somewhere in the far west of Texas I crossed into the Mountain Time Zone and instantly picked up another extra hour, thinking, “Hey, this chasing-light-by-heading-west thing is really working!”

And you know what else is working? Making time to hang around with people.

Back in Marfa, I actually never did go to Chinati (which allegedly is what brought me there in the first place), not even to do the free walking tour of the concrete structures of Donald Judd. I was too busy making new friends. In other words, I actually got the light I came for, just not how I expected. (Isn’t that always the way grace works?)

Did you know human beings emit light? We actually glow, a kind of bioluminescence. (Go here to read about the discovery by a group of Japanese researchers. ) Apparently we do so in 24-hour cycles, “spontaneous photon emissions” with most of the light coming from our foreheads, cheeks, mouths, and necks.

But scientists didn’t have to tell me that. I already know people are shiny. Sometimes I just forget. In Marfa I got the chance to remember.

Sunday, when I had to come back to El Cosmico because I was shut out of Davis Mountain and anywhere else for camping (spring break for the entire world, I guess), I felt a little discouraged. The dust in the parking lot was beginning to get on my nerves, and nights had been chilly without electricity for heat for the dogs and me,

Lots of co-sleeping on chilly nights

and I just plain felt restless.

But it was also at that particular point something shifted, and I began to get to know my “neighbors” better. To my north, a delightful young man, a Brooklyn-based photographer on an extended trip, returning from a job in LA. Driving and living out of a 1988 Toyota truck named Mort (after Neil Young’s cherished hearse) that he’d picked up in his home state of Montana, Michael Cardiello is taking his time making his way back to NYC. A little beer and a lot of conversation, and voila: a new pal.

To my south, Bouwke Frannsen, from The Netherlands, making a cross-country trek to promote awareness about mental health issues with her “I Am One” movement. Bouwke had been traveling all through South America and is now on a cross-country journey in the U.S. She is brave and smart and wise and beautiful, and I’m glad to know her and follow her important journey.

You know that thing when you are getting coffee in the communal area and turn around and there is a group of people you’ve never met but have apparently known all your life? Yeah, that thing.

From Auburn, Alabama, artists Mary Ann Casey – sculptor/ painter/ purveyor of amazingness – and Barbara Birdsong, jewelry artist/magician/sorceress, who gifted me with a beautiful necklace featuring a thunderbird pendant after I modeled the piece in a photo for her online store. The three of us are currently cooking up possibilities for a joint artists’ workshop sometime this fall.

And their fellow travelers, Beth and Larry from Houston, kind, sweet people who loved all over Beasley and Connor, and whom Beasley and Connor pronounced the very finest folk, Beasley gazing with wet adoring eyes at them both and Connor trying to climb into their laps.

I met others, too – art teacher Jennie Tudor Gray, from Austin, eager to brag about her amazing students and a lovely artist in her own right (check it out). Several men biking from California to Florida, lean and rangy with shocks of gray hair. Delightful folks who run El Cosmico, housekeeping, managers, program directors. A Marfa native who talked to me at length in the parking lot of the grocery store, giving me tips about the town and the area. Happy people lounging in hammocks, sipping cold beer, waving and smiling.

I rolled into Las Cruces around 4:30 Mountain Time, well ahead of sunset, so that I was able to watch the gathering glow on the nearby Organ Mountains that loom over the Mesilla Valley like watchful parents. As the sun sank, the city lights of Las Cruces came on, glittering in the half-light.

I found a kick-ass Mexican restaurant and, having been powered solely by a bowl of granola from early in the morning, I honored my serious hunger by putting away a fair amount of food and washing it down with a Tejas Lager from the Big Bend Brewing Company.

The truth is, whenever I leave a place and come to a new one, I feel a little lost. A tad lonely. But then I remind myself. There will be people.

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Marfa Light

Last Friday night this amazing group and this other amazing group rocked the tent into the wonderful wee hours. Part of the Marfa Myths annual festival, the concert  was free, the gathered fans loudly enthusiastic, and the bar tent well patronized.

I got up early enough Saturday morning that the sun wasn’t up yet, but El Cosmico faces east, and there were traces of pink seeping up into the lightening sky.

On my way to the bathhouse I expected to see the usual detritus that is left after a lot of inebriated and otherwise mood-altered people have been singing and dancing and congregating – beer cans and bottles, paper and plastic cups, cigarette butts, napkins, etc.

But there was no trace of a big-o party last night. A few random cans lying about, but I mean an actual few. Sort of a Texas High Desert miracle.

I walked backward along the pebbled path, not wanting to miss the hint of gold coming up through the blue-pink layer of clouds, waiting for the burst of sudden light and the first hint of warmth. It was 39°, and  I was glad for my Uggs and my wool sweater.

The bathhouses here are amazingly clean and well thought out, plenty of them, wooden structures strung with canvas, tons of toilet paper so there is no running out. Pardon my bias, but this is what you get when women are running the place.

But…they are also pretty basic. Nervous toilet-ers (you know who you are) might not do well here. The canvas flaps are casually fastened so that the stiff breeze, which is constant, lifts them up and out, disabusing you of any sense of total privacy. Also, unless it is early morning, like now, there is constant foot traffic along the path as well as other people using the outdoor sink, just on the other side of the canvas, and the only thing between you and the adjoining toilet is some canvas and a pierced metal screen like you’d see in a church confessional.

And then there is the issue of the breeze on your bare ass, which may I say with the temperature just seven degrees above freezing and coupled with the icy seat was quite the wake-up call. But later, when it’s warmer and the spring air carries the delicious smells of metallic Texas clay, scrub grasses, and lingering aroma of wood smoke from last night’s fires, well, honestly, to me there is something marvelous about wind on naked skin.

Later in the day I saw an actual Roadrunner hunting around in the dry undergrowth at the back of El Cosmico, where I take the dogs on their “business walks.” Beasley about jumped out of his skin when he saw it. It skittered along, unwilling to give up the hunt just yet, even with us interlopers, but eventually it zipped off under a hole in the fence to the adjoining land that is the Border Patrol Station. Hashtag, Irony?

Sunday we “sprang forward.” I’ve always felt I was losing an hour of sleep. But someone here corrected me  – no, he said, we are actually gaining an hour of light at the end of the day. Nice.

Later, I drove up to Alpine and then over to Fort Davis, thinking I might stay at Davis Mountain State Park but had not tumbled to the fact that the entire state of Texas is apparently on spring break, so they had no sites left. So I came back to El Cosmico and to Marfa, feeling a little discouraged since I was antsy to be elsewhere and feeling lonely and a bit scattered.

Last night, even though I just wanted to drink some wine and lie around feeling cranky and sad and let the dogs lick my hands in sympathy, I decided to drive out to try and see the Marfa Lights. So after dinner I stowed everything away and headed toward the center of town, and when I turned right to drive up Highway 67 toward the viewing area, I was surprised – no, I was stunned  – by the full moon rising, low in the sky and golden, and enormous, so that the craters seemed close enough I should be able to reach up and touch their sharp edges.

It is a good thing the highway is utterly straight, because I could hardly take my eyes away. I noticed the light reflecting on something I thought might have been a creek or river, but everything around here is dry, dry, dry right now.

It took me some moments to realize what I was seeing was moonlight gleaming on the railroad tracks that run alongside Highway 67, and the light followed me, like a darting sprite, all the way to the viewing area.

Parking was hard to find, since there were a lot of people out there. I grabbed my binoculars and walked over to the front of the building, where there were seventy or so people gathered. Some had brought chairs. Others stood around with their hands in their pockets or sat on the steps or leaned against the railings of the wall. There was a festive atmosphere, an energy of expectation, and it struck me how we had all come out into the dark desert night, with our different stories and our different reasons, looking for mystery, hoping to be surprised and amazed by the unexpected.

And behind me the beautiful moon kept tugging at me, so that I turned my back on the dark empty desert and gazed up, mesmerized, moonstruck, experiencing the warm glow of moonlight as undeserved blessing.

I guess there is the light we seek, and then there is the light we find.

Driving back to Marfa, I opened the windows and let the spring wind come in and mess my hair, thinking there is nothing like flying down a dark Texas highway at 75 mph in the black night with the moonlight chasing behind you.

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Marfa, TX (Part One)

I left La Grange early on Wednesday morning and headed west to San Antonio. Destination: Marfa, way up in the Texas High Desert. To get there I would have to drive around 400 miles or so, nearly all of it west, then the rest of it south.

I hit San Antonio at the peak of morning rush hour. Since my attention was on not getting killed, it wasn’t until I was well past the city that I relaxed enough to look around, and I began to see how the landscape was changing, how hills were cropping up, houses perched along their slopes and hilltops, putting me in mind of southern California.

As congested as I-10 is in the eastern half of the state, once you’re past San Antonio, the interstate rapidly empties out until there are long stretches where you encounter only a handful of  other vehicles, and most of those are semis. It took me a while to notice the absence of any billboards, and hence the absence of gas stations and quick shops. Exits simply dumped you out onto some county highway that took you off in one direction or another to what I assume was some form of civilization.

Well past San Antonio the land flattens out again, but this is deceptive, since you are gradually climbing, and pretty soon you are at 3,000 feet and have no idea how you got there.

Now the vegetation changes again, the trees shrink in size, and I begin to see more prickly-pear cacti and lethally sharp spiked plants and some growth I recognize, like yucca, and some things that stand hauntingly alone in the middle of the sparse growth, reminding me of Groot.

There is no longer any pretense of grass in the median, and the limestone that’s been cut through to make the road appears friable and crumbly, like the inner walls of a ruined house.

When I see an actual town with an actual gas station right next to the interstate, I take the opportunity to top off my gas tank, stretch, walk and water the dogs, and to heat up some leftovers for lunch.

Seven hours into the trek west I exit I-10 and drive south on Route 67, where for the next sixty miles I see exactly two cars headed the same way as I am (they both pass me).

The road waves before me, a glistening ribbon in the heat. Trees have disappeared altogether, leaving cactus, scrub brush,rocks, and little else.

This is the kind of road I would not want to drive at night. It is the kind of road where you could fully expect to meet a UFO, and maybe meet its inhabitants. It’s the kind of road that could take you to someplace weird, like a Hotel California. It’s the kind of landscape that inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I sort of see how it did, see how the harsh wildness might get inside you, how the boundaryless reaching landscape could infiltrate your brain and nudge you toward a certain madness.

I feel as if I’ve landed on another planet, reminded of the images of mountains beamed back from Mars, or perhaps I’m thinking of the rocky surface of the moon.

Even the roadkill is different here. First of all, there are tons of skunks, and I don’t know if that is because there are more of them here or Texas skunks are slower, or both. There are a lot of dead fawns, positioned carefully with their heads outstretched as if trying to catch that one last breath. I saw something that might have been a coyote, and a dead rooster that I can only surmise fell off a truck, since there is not a house or farm for miles around. There was something that might have been a stork – all that was left were some stalky looking legs and a pile of bloody feathers.

(Two days later I will see something that looks like a capybara. I will drive by it twice on purpose. I am that weird.)

I roll into Marfa around four o’clock in the afternoon, and easily find El Cosmico campgrounds. Coolest. Place. Ever. Yurts, trailers, safari tents, tepees, and self-camping, and the wide Texas sky with its fluffy white clouds that flatten just above the desert. And the happy return of trees.

I have a two day reservation but want to stay longer, so I’ll move into their parking lot for Friday and Saturday nights, and I’ll have lots of company when I do, people sleeping in tiny campers, ultra-badass 4WDs, and their cars. Because somehow I’ve managed to be here for the weekend of an annual cultural and music festival. Well played, me.

Hauling stuff out to the tent with two wigged-out boxers in tow (“Where in the God-hell is she taking us now???) took some doing, but we finally found the tent and once I clipped up the heavy canvas, and the flapping noise it made in the wind had abated, the dogs put careful feet inside, looked around and sniffed in every corner, before settling down onto their bed with heavy sighs.

The first I heard of Marfa was on an NPR program about a year ago. The piece was about the burgeoning arts community and how a New York painter and sculptor named Donald Judd (1928-1994), who had become curious about the intersection of art and architecture, had selected the abandoned Fort D.A. Russell military installation to showcase modern art and designed and installed large pieces that played with the contrast of shadow and light, as well as the reflective qualities of the strong sunlight and austere landscape. The Chinati Foundation, Judd’s brainchild, now houses his and many other contemporary works.

When I heard the NPR spot, the whole “Chasing Light” journey/book idea was just beginning to percolate, and I immediately decided on Marfa as my first stop. I cannot tell you how many times I went to the Visit Marfa website, how many times I Google-mapped the possible routes and mileage. Over the months I began to hear bits and pieces about the place from others, chance mentions – a friend knew of it, a writing acquaintance had just been there – and my excitement grew.

Later, my plan to first head to Marfa morphed a bit as I adjusted to the variabilities (translation: Life happened) over the next several months.

Now, though, I am here, close enough to the Chinati Foundation that my laptop picks up a weak wifi signal from their office.

The dear young women who are both receptionists and docents make me feel guilty when I tell them I’ve come from North Carolina to see the place but that I cannot do the four-hour comprehensive tour.

“See, I have these two dogs,” I say,  but they look at each other and frown and say to me, “But you’ve come all this way!”  Now they try to help me solve the quandary of what to do with Connor and Beasley for four hours in the heat of the High Desert sun, but it’s becoming complicated, and I sort of don’t feel the same urgency they do.

I want to tell them, “Really, it’s okay, I actually just came for the light,” but I doubt they would understand my need for illumination. I’m not even sure I understand it.

I just know that last evening, after spending the day walking around the center of Marfa, seeing how the sun lit up the pink walls of the Presidio County Courthouse, and driving out into the desert, the pale sparse grasses seeming lit from within, I gazed out through the screen of my safari tent and watched as the sun melted into the tops of the post oaks and  realized I feel lighter, brighter already.

More to come on Marfa.

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