Tuesday, March 15, 2011

2,661 miles: Not-quite Marfa Texas & BLM land in New Mexico

I'm sitting in my car near my campsite in New Mexico, 10 miles north of the Texas border. The early evening sun is illuminating the whispy, dry yellow brush, the gnarled green bushes and the razor-sharp, spiked plants that sparsely dot the landscape before me. As far as the eye can see.

This might be among the most remote places I've ever spent a night sleep. It's certainly the furthest out where I was still connected to the internet. The magic, the vulgarness of mobile connectivity.

My last night in Austin lived up to the reliably exhilarating, exhausting pace set by the days before it. Rachel sent me word that Quintron & Miss Pussycat, one of my favorite bands from New Orleans (who, incidentally, I didn't have a chance to catch while I was down there) were playing a free show at SXSW, sponsored by Etsy. It could not have been more appropriate for the event, or to wrap up my live music consumption for awhile: they did a puppet show about shielding powerful, secret pizza recipes from the police. Miss Pussycat wore a green dress with a line from shoulder to hip of footlong pink fringe (which Rachel intends to imitate- I'm holding you to it). We walked back to food cart heaven, where the homemade ice cream sandwich lady had previously gushed about serving ice cream to Elvis Costello that day and ate amazing Thai food, then got some 'pork buns' in the some delicious, inexplicably smooth and squishy puffed pasty. Then I got on my bike, wound the 10 miles back to home base and got ready to hit western Texas.

While my drive into Austin felt more like an extension of Louisiana's swampy greenery than I'd expected, the drive out quickly opened up to rolling brown hills, polka-dotted with bushes and crooked trees before opening up to long, dry expanses of empty horizon and occasional, momentous rocky bluffs. I drove through oil country, where the only sign of civilization were small oil wells, endlessly bopping their humanoid metal heads up and down to extract Texas crude from the depths of the barren landscape. It was a long drive, but also my first stretch since Michigan-Chicago that I was totally alone on the road. I took my time, wandering up lonely highways that had been recommended back home, liberally napping in rest areas (my sinuses were still bothering me quite a bit, affecting my ear to the point that much of yesterday's drive had no soundtrack- ouch.

My loose destination for the night had been Marfa Texas, a small western Texas backwater that in recent years has sprouted as an arts mecca and a vacation destination. I made it into town around 9:30pm, and bore witness to the first major miscalculation of my trip. I knew this place was small, but I had no idea how small. Two main roads, a smattering of high end hotels and restaurants surrounded by desert. Since I'd been feeling rotten I gave myself to spring for a hotel, but hadn't wagered how difficult this would be. Nothing was available in town. After a dozen-odd calls, nothing within 30 miles. I couldn't believe it, on a Monday night in March... then i realized this is a resort town, and it's Spring Break for half the country.

Uggg. After all the luck and resourcefulness on this trip, I'd bit off more than I could chew. A lesson well learned- I can test my luck once I'm established in a place, but don't bank everything on a rural little hamlet completely sight unseen. I slunk my tail between my legs, turned around and headed back to Fort Stockton, nearly an hour back up the road. I slept more soundly than any other night on this trip.

After 10+ hours of rest, I woke up this morning to a delightfully unpleasant experience: the congestion in my chest breaking up!! Ah, to be back on the road to wellness. Which is a blessing, since I intended to go off into the wilderness by the day's end. I picked up some supplies at the local Wal-Mart (a cringingly welcomed surprise when you're in the middle of nowhere, on the way to the middle of nowhere) and hit the road towards the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

A few nights before, I ran into a rugged looking fellow named JD at dusk in line for a restroom. He was on a trip as well, headed towards a job at Carlsbad Caverns. Two minutes of small talk turned into a half hour of him giving me the ins and outs of every national park from Texas to California. And one of the few he absolutely INSISTED I check out was Guadalupe. Sounds good, it's on my way, here we go...

After a relatively light day on the road (~3 hours) I made it to the entrance of the park, to be informed that the last sights for the night had been rented. The man at the park was a stout old man of 80 with thick spectacles and an enormous, pocked nose. "Well what now?" I asked.\
"BLM Land," he replied flatly. Ah, I'd been looking forward to this moment. Big swaths of New Mexico, Utah and California are all government owned, and a lot are open to free camping as long as you know where to look. I headed up the highway, keeping an eye for tents in the distance, and gates without a 'No Trespassing' sign.  After 20 minutes I saw some tents dotting a hill and pulled through a gate, down a dusty two track lane, down about a mile to a hilltop hidden from the freeway. I parked my car and set up camp about 300 yards back from the path.  Nothing in any direction, no potable water for 20 miles, total back country camping (of course, supported by a car, a laptop and bluegrass on the stereo).

The sun's setting.  I'm going to try and post this via my cell phone's internet connection, head towards camp with a book and get to sleep early, to hit Guadalupe again at dawn.

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