House of The Setting Sun, Part I

I pictured Hurricane Harvey as an old man with one of those old-style hats like a hamburger bun. Even when he ravished Houston the absurd image persisted. With Hurricane Nate, I could only see some young 20-something kid on his way to New Orleans for Fat Tuesday, ready to heave all over the city that Nancy and I were planning on visiting.

These thoughts played out in my head as I laid in the dark of our bedroom. We’d had the room booked, had restaurant reservations, had a river boat cruise lined up—we wanted to be unabashed, un-ironic New Orleans tourists.

The recurring thought of “We’ll risk it. We’ll call its bluff,” pushed through the noise in my head, just like it did with Harvey. But we didn’t risk Harvey or call its bluff. We fled to Austin—to Nancy’s sister’s.

“You’re just wasting time.” I thought. I nudged Nancy.

“Huh?” She asked from her side of the bed.

“Let’s cancel New Orleans. There’s a storm coming. And this was going to be our last trip for a while.” Her belly was just beginning to show, 20 weeks into her pregnancy.

“Let’s just drive West instead, to Marfa and Big Bend.”

Under the hush of early morning we dressed and prepared. It would be one last push before the baby.

I began watching the film Paris, Texas when I was still in Pittsburgh. I watched a quarter of it before we packed our things and lived like nomads for a short period. Two months later, I finished it off alone in Houston. Nancy was still in Pittsburgh finishing school. In my one-bedroom in our scrappy neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Paris, Texas gave me the impression that Texas was a vast, profound place. Now that I was settled in Houston, I felt like the film waxed too poetic about Texas. It showed beauty in the ugliness. But so far all I had seen was plain and straightforward.

Nancy and I were on i45 North on our way to i10 West at 2:30am. The highway lights streamed over us and splashed against the windshield like stars. The normal hustle of Houston was still asleep. We had found that odd hour where the city had no momentum.

The city rose in front of us like Oz. It was a mix of white, yellow and purple and it twinkled. It was under the reverie of early-morning that I felt like Harry Dean Stanton and could apply the beauty of Paris, Texas to the harsh reality of Houston.

Nancy dozed off in the passenger seat while I drove North and then West. When driving is easy, there is an element of Zen to it. You soon forget about the wheel and the highway. Your brain gives the trivial task of staying in your lane and keeping apace over to a part of your subconscious.

West was all we needed; it was a pure and simple urge that was easy to give into. I felt like I was holding my breath until we hit San Antonio and drove into uncharted territory.

A couple of hours outside of San Antonio, the night turned dark purple. Sleeping in my bed, I would not have understood the nuance. But in abject darkness I could see the transition. Soon, the silhouette of dark clouds showed against the inky sky. And then the subtleties broke away all at once with the gray of early morning. At dawn, I thought of my dad. He’d always drive us in the bleary, early morning with the window cracked, blowing the frigid morning air into the car while my sister and I slept in the back with our blankets over us. I thought of my own child, soon to be, and wondered if my own manic tendencies would imprint on him in the same way.

The gray broke into pale orange. Through my rearview mirror I could see the sun. It rose, dull at first, revealing the hidden landscape that had surrounded me for the last 200 miles. My surroundings were alien. The outcroppings of craggy rock were violent and prehistoric. I was somewhere else.

Our first stop was Marfa, Texas. As I drove, Nancy made a reservation at the Thunderbird Hotel. They had two vacancies and we assured them through the crackling of our weak phone signal that we were two hours away. As we drew closer to the town, the final hour of our nine and a half hour journey stretched out like a rubber band. The terrain took on a new color. The pale, creamy white of limestone and green blots of foliage gave way to orange and yellow. The land flattened, and in places shattered, rising into the sky like broken glass. Cities gave way to towns.

When we rolled into Alpine, Texas the remoteness of our location began to take hold. You could see the grocery store and the gas station. You could see the church. They stood like solitary beacons for their residents. I wondered how tenderly the people of Alpine treated these places—they were all so small and sparse.

It was 11:30am when we arrived in Marfa. It was a desert town. Everything was the color of rust and had long ago shrunk from the sun, seeking shelter under sharp shadows.

We checked into our hotel and I took a shower while Nancy read. After, we looked at the single sheet of paper that the hotel attendant had given us. He had handed it to us gingerly, to convey to us how little there was in Marfa. He wasn’t apologetic. He wanted to make sure we understand that he was fine here.

The only thing open at noon on a Friday was a food truck. The owner wore dusty blue jeans and a faded t-shirt. A ball cap cast a diagonal shadow across his face. I looked at his sinuous arms through the privacy of my sunglasses. He was a tireless and Sisyphean figure but opened his window 10 minutes late while we stood by his truck in a line. I suspected he struggled to preserve the purity of his identity in Marfa. I watched him make food for women in thousand-dollar outfits. One lifted her phone and aimed it at him as he leaned out. “Please, do not take my photo.” He asked.

My impression of Marfa began to broaden to accommodate an opposing force within the town. The town was in a state of contrition. The people it gave penance to were the Dallas and Austin suburbanites.

Nancy and I saw the paradox of Marfa as we explored. It was full of authentic, struggling people but was doomed to serve an inauthentic audience.

I overheard a young man working in the town’s thrift store. “Oh I know her.” He told a regular. The man looked like a recent resident, like he had recently found some small validation in Marfa. I knew people like him, who struggled with the day-to-day. He continued with a hint of sadness in his voice, “She told me I should move to Marfa. She said it would be perfect for me.” I pictured him, exasperated with life, sitting across from this woman and wondered what she had saved him from.

At night, I understood the Marfa paradox a little better. It was obvious, as people mingled, that everyone in Marfa fell into two categories. Marfa was not so much a destination for the suburbanite as it was an escape for the thrift store man. He needed that close-knit loneliness in order to survive. Visiting Marfa felt like an intrusion on this man’s peace, which made the Sisyphean image of the food truck owner even grimmer.

The morning was cold when we checked out of the hotel the next day. It felt like early spring in Pittsburgh. If I closed my eyes, I could transport myself. Our plan that day was to travel west and then south, on the verge of Mexican wilderness. We’d get a hotel in the town of Terlingua and visit Big Bend. The drive was 130 miles, only two hours on the desolate and flat desert highway.

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