alexis stember coulter
ON THE ROAD TO MARFA
I’d charted an extensive itinerary for our two week trip. (MORE TEXT ABOUT WHY THEY TOOK THIS TRIP)
Marfa is the Tulum of the southwest except with more art; at least that’s what I’d imagined based on the people I’d known to have gone there. I pictured a modestly sized, modestly developed town with well-dressed artists casually wandering between expertly designed cafes and curated restaurants leaving people like me to wonder how they made their money. The reality of Marfa was entirely different.
ON THE ROAD TO MARFA
I’d charted an extensive itinerary for our two week trip. We’d leave Austin for Marfa after an early breakfast, stop in Fort Stockton for lunch at Mingos Burritos and head to Alpine for Mexican snow cones at Murphy St. Raspa Company. Like all good plans, none of this was followed.
We slept in, had a late breakfast in Austin and, bellies full, resolved to drive toward Marfa and stop only if we saw something that caught our eye. An hour and a half out, we stopped in Fredericksburg, a picturesque town in Hill Country with all the charm (and bathrooms) a tourist could want.
Some fudge and a handful of photos later, we went back out on the open road toward a small outpost in southwest Texas made famous by minimalist artist Donald Judd.
It was cold, dusty and above all, incredibly small. When we arrived, I thought we’d have to search for our hotel but there it was, on one of the few blocks of establishments to speak of. There was indeed an excellent coffee shop but it was heaped together with a small bookstore and the whole thing appeared to be constructed of nothing more than plywood and love. A good gust of wind and it would have been blown away.
The unassuming nature and true isolation of this town was vastly counter to my expectations and I loved it for its rugged humility and wandering soul.
The initial plan was to spend one day in Marfa, then drive to Big Bend National Park for a morning before overnighting in Fort Davis and driving the stretch between Artesia and Cloudcroft in New Mexico the next day. The total drive hours between all these places was 10.5 hours, without stops. In other words, unrealistic.
We wound up cutting Big Bend, the stretch from Artesia to Cloudcroft and Fort Davis from our itinerary and opted for another morning in Marfa to immerse ourselves more deeply in the Chihuahuan Desert and Donald Judd.
White Sands National Monument,
We arrived at dusk and hadn’t planned to visit the monument until morning but the light, or what was left of it, was too spectacular to miss.
We drove a loop through the monument marveling at the otherworldliness of this Martian land. The sands swallowed us in a wash of reflected pastels that starkly contrasted against the snow white granules shifting below our tires. Dark fell before we’d gotten half way through the monument so we turned back toward the highway and to our motel.
The next morning we returned to hike. I was surprised to see quite a few people already trekking up the dunes as we entered the monument. It certainly wasn’t teeming but I’d imagined, given the early AM hour and that it was an average weekday in October, we might find ourselves alone. This would not be the case.
We kept driving in search of something secluded and passed a group of four people on horseback, readying themselves for a day of riding through the sands. We stopped and spoke to them.
The group told us they habitually rode throughout the Southwest, mostly through national parks and monuments. White Sands, they said, was one of their favorites. We photographed them waiting on horseback as a ranger stood in front of them, reprimanding them for bringing their trailers into the wrong parking lot. We exited the fray, thanked them for their time and made our way a trail that looked remote and promising.
Climbing a wall of white to reach the first peak, the sun had emerged overhead and the sands were now starkly lit like a blinding reflector. It wasn’t even 9am and already the severity of the desert was clear. This was not somewhere one survived if not very adequately prepared.
We followed a loosely marked trail of what looked like ski poles with florescent orange heads but it was hard to connect the dots and find one after another. Getting lost felt like a very real possibility and not one I liked the idea of.
As we hiked, I remember noticing that there wasn’t much wind but I’ve been asked what it smelled or sounded like and the funny thing is, I can’t remember. I think that’s because the place is so sensorially removed from any experience that is familiar that my memory views it like it does the moon landing – as something silent, buoyant and otherworldly. It was as much a step onto the moon as it was a step into the purity of existence itself.
That purity, the purity of this Monument, was dichotomously surrounded by the noise and bombast of every fast food restaurant I could think of, positioned there to support the military who work at the missile range just beyond the National Monument.
The juxtaposition was hard to assimilate and harder still to describe. Awkward and uncomfortable, it was also deeply intriguing and made White Sands one of the strangest and most magical places I’ve visited.
Stayed: White Sands Motel. Clean, cheap, close. Ask for the AAA rate.
Saw: The sunrise and sunset.
Ate: I wish I could say we found some authentic, off the beaten path restaurant that was good. We tried but without success.
Quemado (or the middle of nowhere),
The drive from White Sands to Canyon de Chelly, our next and last stop before heading to our flight, was a long one. We realized that, due to our late start, we couldn’t cover the ground in one day. Studying a map and searching the Internet for restaurants known to use green chilis to their maximum potential, I targeted Quemado, a town on the boarder with Arizona (near the Dia Art Foundation Lightning Field).
Largo Cafe and Hotel in Quemado was rumored to have a great green chili burger and clean lodgings. Both were owned and operated by one family and the establishment was favorably known as a solid home base for hunters in the area.
I called and booked a room. Arriving past dusk on the unlit highway, we nearly missed it seeing no evidence of a surrounding town. We saw just the hotel and a gas station across the street. Beyond that, only darkness.
We walked into the cafe and stood at the register, waiting to be seated. We hadn’t eaten for hours in anticipation of their acclaimed burger.
The staff seemed disoriented and unorganized. Half were doing their apparent jobs while the other half spoke hushed and hurriedly amongst themselves, loosely huddled. Finally, a middle aged woman approached.
“We’re closed,” she said. It was 7:45pm.
“But your sign says you close at 8.”
“Not tonight. We’re closed.”
Dylan and I looked at each other. Something was clearly wrong but it was unclear what and only half the staff seemed concerned. Dylan tried again.
“Would it be possible to just get a fried egg to go or something? My wife is pregnant as you can see and that gentleman there is still cooking….” A man with an oil-stained chef’s apron flipped a handful of burgers on an open grill and didn’t appear to be aware of any change to the evening’s schedule.
“No. Can’t do it. We have an emergency.”
She closed the till, flipped the open sign in the window to closed and walked away.
“Excuse me-” Dylan interjected. She looked back. “Can you tell us where else we can go?”
“Arizona’s not far. Or you can go to the grocery store across the street.”
Dylan pointed in the direction of the gas station. “There?”
We stepped out. We’d already paid for the room at the adjoining hotel but were contemplating driving straight to Arizona. Something felt gravely off. We went to our room and discussed.
Things to consider:
1. The roads were pitch black and we were in deer country. Driving conditions were less than optimal.
2. Our cellphone reception was non-existent. Google Maps wouldn’t be able to help us out on the road and we had no physical map.
3. We’d already paid for our hotel.
4. We didn’t know if or where we could get another hotel once we were in Arizona.
5. The whole point was that we were hungry and it was possible nothing would be open by the time we got there.
We decided to stay but were deeply uncomfortable about it. A few people had gathered in the parking lot behind the restaurant and were pacing. It looked as though something nefarious had happened, like a murder had taken place in one of the rooms. My pregnancy brain kicked in. I’d survived the plane; I couldn’t die here. We made it through the night and left the Largo Hotel as early as possible. We never did find out what the emergency was.
Stayed: Largo Cafe & Hotel.
Ate: Wonderbread with peanut butter and whatever else we could find at the grocery store, otherwise known as the gas station.
Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park. Arizona.
We made our way toward Canyon de Chelly, a profound and moving national monument in Arizona, but first, a pit stop at the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park.
We entered blindly, knowing nothing about the place. A rainbow of earth, heat and Mesozoic layers greeted us as we drove through the park. There were very few people as we walked the paths into the interior as the ground rose and caved in grand fashion around us, rounded at the peaks by age and time.
This was America in its glory, a land before time gratefully and graciously preserved. Were it not for a deceptively green square on a map, we would never have found ourselves there.
Stayed: Just passing through.
Saw: The land before time.
Ate: Tuna melt at the Painted Desert Diner.
Canyon de Chelly. Arizona.
Our whole trip was largely built around this destination. A 131 square mile area of protected land, this is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America.
Rich in history, ancestry and ruins, it is where photographer Edward Curtis captured one of the most memorable images of a group of Navajo inhabiting the land at a time when Native Americans were being rapidly and radically assaulted.
Curtis was a figure of interest to both me and Dylan. Photographers ourselves, we’d read biographies, watched documentaries, studied his images and been seduced by a life we found unique, conflicted, exceptional and tragic. This canyon, where so many people had lived and where some of Curtis’ finest photographs had been taken, sounded a siren call and we answered with deference and respect.
As it happened, the New York Times had come out with a story titled Photographer Edward S. Curtis’s Southwest a handful of months before our trip. In it, the writer tours Canyon de Chelly with a man who grew up there and was, in his own words, “101% canyon Indian.” His name was James Yazzie Jr.
In planning our trip, it hadn’t occurred to me to try and find James Yazzie Jr. but we did want (and need) a guide of our own to access the canyon floor. I found a tour online with a company called Beauty Way Jeep Tours. It was an awkward name but was highly reviewed with a number of guides who seemed knowledgeable and were well liked.
I booked a private tour and our guide picked us up bright and early as we’d requested so we could view the canyon in the breaking morning light. He was warm, chatty and masterful at commanding his Jeep over the ice-patched canyon floor, a floor that later became a series mud traps as the ice melted in the heat of the burning sun.
Our guide explained that his whole family lived in the canyon. Always had and always would. He’d grown up on the land, had his kids on the land, continued to work on the land. “I’m 101% canyon Indian,” he said. I stopped him.
“I’m sorry but what is your full name?”
“James Yazzie Jr.” The same James Yazzie Jr. from The New York Times article.
“I can’t believe this. I just read about you in The New York Times.” I said.
“Oh? Oh yes, there was a nice guy, a writer. I showed him around a couple months ago.”
He had no idea the article had been published or what it had said. It seemed to amuse him that I’d read it, but only in a passing way. Instead he breezed it by mentioning the movies he’d been in that had been shot in the canyon, or movies his family had been in. Hollywood excited him it seemed. Newspapers, not so much.
At the end of the day, the canyon floor complete, Dylan and I decided to rush to the overlook on the canyon’s South Rim to see the infamous Spider Rock before dark. The sun set just before we arrived and by the time we got to the viewing terraces, the horizon had become a delicate ombré of pinks, oranges and blues. Before long, a navy wave flooded the sky and all that was left was a full, luminous, heaving moon pinned perfectly in the sky.
I wish I could say we’d had the foresight to plan it this way but it was dumb luck. We stood there, alone with the full moon on the last night of our babymoon, and let this ancient and spiritual place fill us with its thousands of years of life, humanity, toil, love and birth.
“Welcome,” I thought, my eyes focused on the horizon with one arm cradling my belly and the other wrapped behind Dylan’s back. A quiet smile enveloped me. “Welcome to this world.”
And what a world it is.
Stayed: Sacred Canyon Lodge
Saw: Spider Rock and the origins of America.
Ate: Whatever we could find at the grocery store, otherwise known as the gas station.
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