For me, there are few joys in life as deep and lasting as a road trip. The further and longer, the better. The sense of freedom, the detachment from day-to-day troubles and the feeling that one’s identity is left behind bring about a profound sense of euphoria for me. The wavy heat rising off the blacktop in the distance, fooling us into thinking there is water up ahead and making every approaching vehicle appear to solidify out of it’s formerly liquid self. The place where our identity once was, now open and up-for-rent to all the personalities we’d like to try on for size. No one has any idea who you are and nor do they care. That is freedom to me.
I want to tell you all about Marfa, TX right from the get-go, but to do so would disjoint this narrative from it’s linear, interstate-like purpose; so I must start where I started. I left LA early on Saturday morning, pointing myself East on I-10, setting the cruise control, and letting the road-trip transformation begin. Within a few hours I had left the throngs of Angelinos behind and was thoroughly ensconced in the vast desert between Palm Springs and Phoenix. I have driven this section of highway more times than I can possibly recall. I dated a woman in Phoenix when I first moved to LA and spent every other weekend driving out to see her. Because of this, or perhaps in spite of it, it has always been a place where I let my inner karaoke demon loose. I sing all my favorite Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, Neil Young, Dave Matthews Band or Jimi Hendrix songs at the top of my lungs. Solidly out-of-key, but trying to breathe at the right moments anyhow and actually sing at all the parts I’m supposed to, instead of just lip-syncing while out of breath. I keep a very respectable (maybe I missed my calling as a session drummer) beat on the steering wheel, dashboard and/or knee the whole time, too. It’s one of my private joys in life, and it never ceases to come out in full force in this stretch of desert. By the time I hit Tonopah, AZ I usually have to start lowering the volume and my voice because my throat is beginning to get sore. It’s always worth it, though, as I arrive in Phoenix in a wondrous mood, completely impressed (as always) at my great abilities as a drummer and singer, alike. This trip was no exception.
My first stop was in the Roosevelt historic district in downtown. This was my last neighborhood in Phoenix before I moved to LA and I absolutely love it. It’s a place where local artists have set up shop in old homes and helped revitalize the downtown area; way before it was ‘cool’. They’ve held fast to a few blocks, thankfully, even though there’s been some large developments that’ve sprouted around. The GrowHouse is an absolutely amazing Permaculture example just a few blocks from where I used to lay my head. I’d never seen it quite so green with all the leafy greens and flowers in bloom! They’ve painted and re-done the interior since I left as well and it just looks so very, very nice now. I also visited what used to be my favorite coffee house, Conspire, which is now a Vegan Cafe. I got an espresso spiked smoothie there that was fantastic. It was the perfect cool and refreshing counterpoint to the dry heat outside.
After prying myself out of the Roosevelt, I went to visit my good friend, Tim, who lives in another historic neighborhood nearby with his wife, Uyen, and their ridiculously good-looking little boy, Henry. Tim and Uyen moved into their historic house shortly after I moved downtown. They bought it as a foreclosure and did an amazing job remodeling and interior decorating the place. This house could easily be in a design magazine. It was awesome to finally get to meet Henry, who I’d only seen in pictures on Facebook so far. He photographs well but is even better looking in person! I didn’t stay too long because Tim and I had a mountain to climb before nightfall. So we headed NorthEast to Camelback mountain. Along the way we passed through many neighborhoods in the city that I’d been familiar with. There were the usual changes; new stores, new housing, road improvements, etc., but it felt so very familiar to me. I lived in Phoenix for twice as long as I’ve lived in LA so far and I guess it just feels a little more ‘homey’ for that reason. I asked Tim to verify which street I should turn on once, but only because I was doubting myself. I got us to the trailhead without thinking about it very much. I remembered it all as if I’d only left yesterday.
The hike was pretty much how I expected it. Beautiful, filled with great conversation between good friends who’ve been apart too long, and way harder than it used to by. Hiking the Echo Canyon trail on Camelback Mountain is more like rock scrambling than hiking. You get a lot of elevation in a very short distance and if you haven’t hiked in awhile (read: me) it’s going to kick your butt. It was totally worth every drop of sweat, though. The view from the top is unbeatable. Phoenix got way more rain than LA did this winter and the spring colors were blooming all over the valley. The gentle greens that covered the hills and mountains. The trees in the neighborhoods looking fuller and more vibrantly green than usual. And the blooms on the cacti in their vivid oranges and pinks and yellows all parading their goods for the world to see. I even caught a hummingbird drinking from a bright, orange Ocotillo bloom thanks to Tim’s quick eyes. He seemed to catch sight of all the little lizards and hummingbirds along the way, some of the lizards not quite so little. I think I was too out-of-breath to look much further than my feet most of the way.
We finished the hike just in time to enjoy the glowing sunset for the last 1/2 mile or so. Then it was back to Tim’s to clean up and head out for the night. Tim had tickets to a concert so I went to meet up with my friends Lea and Jonathan at the Rose & Crown pub downtown. If you know me at all, you know I have a thing for pubs. If I’m going to go out to drink and it’s my choice of where – I’ll almost always choose a pub. I knew the Rose & Crown from my days in downtown and now that ASU has such a big presence downtown, the pub was even better than I remember it. It’s located in a big old house in Heritage Square, where a few restaurants and museums are located and only pedestrians are allowed to walk along the street. Since I’d been there last they’d added outdoor seating on the beautiful porch on the front of the house and that’s where I met Jonathan, and Lea shortly afterwards, to enjoy our little gathering. I’d expected a few more folks, but some flaked and others wrote to told me they couldn’t make it. It was actually quite nice having just the three of us. We talked for hours about what had been going on in our lives, what was coming, and kvetched about office politics as only people who know each other from working together can. It was an evening that ended too early, but my exhaustion (and last call @ 1:30am) prevented us from staying out much later. I gave Lea a lift back to her place in North Phoenix where I was going to have my inaugural night’s sleep in Tejon. It went pretty well. I slept solidly, but was rudely awoken by the heat of the sun cooking me by 9am. After a cup of coffee, and a super-delicious spinach, avocado, banana, blueberry and strawberry smoothie that Lea concocted for me, I was off again towards downtown to meet up with Tim and Uyen and Henry for Tim’s Birthday Brunch! It was a pretty quick meal, though, and before I knew it we were saying our sad goodbyes and I was heading across town.
I stopped at a few places I’d lived before as I slowly made my way back to the Interstate. It was quite a trip to see the places I’d been and what they looked like now. The quality of life is so very different in Phoenix and I can’t say I wasn’t just a little sad for the loss of house-living and having a backyard and a garage and room to have my own ‘office’. But I have Mother Ocean now, and I never suffer for months on end in excruciating heat. I’m really not sure I could ever give that up now, no matter how much cheaper my accommodations might be.
I jumped back on the Interstate and headed South for a bit, as the I-10 curves down that way to go through Tucson on it’s way out of Arizona. The going was easy and the roads pretty wide open after Tucson and before I knew it I was crossing the state line into New Mexico. The sun was fading and my energy along with it so I decided to stop in Lordsburg, NM for the night. I found a KOA campground there and overpaid for a place to park and shower. One night’s cost there was good for two nights in Marfa. But no matter. I was tired and I needed to sleep and I got a good night’s sleep there in the cool, high desert night air. I was up and back on the road by 8:30 the next morning, having un-knowingly lost an hour of time when I crossed the state line the day before. I stopped in Las Cruces, NM for Starbucks since I neglected to pack sugar for my own coffee. Caffeinated and completely awake I shortly crossed the state line and cruised into El Paso, TX. I have to pause for a moment on El Paso because it really effected me. It isn’t a beautiful place by any means. At least, not to me. It is browner than any other city I’ve seen, having seemingly zero trees anywhere and all it’s buildings painted to match the surrounding brown desert hills. All that I can accept, but it was the view of Juarez on the other side of the Rio Grande that shocked me. I’ve never been to Mexico before, but I was just recently in Brazil a few months ago and right there, a stone’s throw from the Interstate, were favelas, slum housing stretching over the hills into the distance. It felt so very deeply wrong. To have that disparity between the wealth and new-ness of El Paso (the pristine buildings of the University of Texas at one point almost casting their shadows on Juarez) so close to all that unnecessary suffering . . . It just plain shocked me. How does this happen? By just placing an arbitrary border between one country and another? That we can create this otherworldly scene . . . Perhaps I just haven’t seen enough of it. It was my very first exposure to Mexico and it made me dislike El Paso deeply. I couldn’t get out of it’s traffic-clogged boundaries fast enough. And once I did; what a change.
West Texas is just . . . so . . . vast. You feel like you’re looking off the edge of the earth as you stare out to the horizon. A few ‘bumps’ here and there in the landscape. Mountains, those bumps are, but they’re so far away they only give the slightest hint to their true size. And the sky. My god, the sky. It seems to lay over everything in a tremendous, deep blue arc. Uninterrupted. That is probably the word that best summarizes the landscape here. Everything just flows together; uninterrupted. And here, in that great vastness, I arrived in Marfa.
To understand Marfa, one must first understand it’s history. It began, as so many towns here in West Texas and the west overall have, as a railroad stop. Marfa, in particular, was a water stop. A place where the trains would stop to replenish their water stores to keep those old steam engines going. The population grew during World War II, due to the Marfa Army Airfield, but the growth stalled and reversed a bit in the late 20th century. During that downtown, a very famous artist from New York, Donald Judd, moved here in the early 70’s. Drawn by the wide open spaces of the desert landscapes here, he came along with his large art installations, and the art world followed. Now Marfa is known as an art destination and the town reflects this. It’s quite strange, actually, to see all the galleries and well remodeled homes here among the more ‘accurate’ run-down relics that dot the town. It is beautiful, for sure, but strange. One gets the sense that there is still quite a schism that separates the new artsy types, from the ranchers that have been here for so long. I just don’t see how the two can get along, but I’m just an outsider, viewing the town like a tourist and trying to understand it all in the two days that I’m here.
For me and my camera, however, it is a paradise. A place where the amazing desert light illuminates both the decay of decades past and the sharp angles of the remodeled homes and minimalist gallery spaces that pepper the town. I was spellbound for hours yesterday afternoon into evening as I wandered the streets, alleys, and ghostly old factories shooting all these wonderful scenes. It was a blissful time of really being in the ‘zone’. Alone with my thoughts of different light and angles and free to roam pretty much wherever I felt like. There were so few people around that I didn’t even flinch to go walking through a closed factory and shoot it for almost a half hour until I found that composition I saw in my mind when I first glanced it from a distance. I can certainly imagine why an artist would want to escape to a place like this. There is something so raw and true about small towns like this. Inspiration seeming to come from a deep, productive well out here in the desert. The light and the history and the silence all conspiring to create moments that will attract the soulful, hearty types of people, both willing and required to trade their creature city comforts for the quite grandiosity of this high desert. I’m glad that I’ve finally made my way to this place on my way to so many other places. There is no doubt I will return to see what other treasures she’ll be willing to share with me upon my return.