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Jennifer Swallow

Thirty-six Hours In A Remote Corner Of Texas

   The green-haired, bespectacled chef at La Kiva had a lot of dreams and a lot of time to share them with me and my partner. 

   “I’m working on a non-fiction book right now, an anti-fascist treatise. I’m going to self-publish it. I already wrote a play about old timey-pirates living in modern times. I’m trying to get that performed in my community theater group. I act with them too. And I’ve developed steak seasoning. The people here love it and the owner is going to let me sell it in the restaurant once I figure out the packaging. I’ll sell it online too. There’s nothing like it out there.”  

   At that moment, the restaurant had only six customers inside at the bar, though it could have easily accommodated twice Terlingua’s population. It had been built partially into the arid ground, and the entryway had been designed like a mine entrance, an homage to the town’s history. The walls were made of uneven rocks, filled in with concrete where necessary. 

   My partner and I had downed two gin and tonics, then started exploring. We’d checked out the grotto-like indoor performance space, examined the framed newspaper articles describing the murder of La Kiva’s previous owner, and sat down briefly in the sunroom. Then we’d gone out to the back patio. We turned on the lights to the outdoor stage. The colors changed every minute from red to blue to green to yellow, and we pretended to be rock stars, singing into fist microphones for an audience of several seemingly stray dogs. 

   When the chef had come out to smoke, the tale of his aspirations had begun before we could even tell him our names. 

   As I listened to him, I believed that, living in Terlingua, he had an excellent chance of realizing his all dreams. Here in the Chihuahua Desert, professional sports teams, amusement parks, tabloids dramatizing the lives of the rich and famous, and all other manner of pre-packaged entertainment were non-existent. The residents lived largely devoid of reliable media connections to the outside world. They inhabited a cultural blank slate, and the creative-minded had all the time they wanted to fill the world with their own designs.   

   “Gotta go check on my daughter,” the chef said at the conclusion of twenty minutes of oral autobiography and self-promotion. He headed toward the trailer parked fifty feet behind the restaurant and the dogs followed him. He lived there with his wife, who was the bartender, and their five-year-old, who was asleep, or so he hoped. I wondered where their child went to school. I wondered where they bought groceries. I wondered where they took their daughter, or themselves, for health care. 

   “Oh,” he turned around. “You should come back tomorrow night. It’s Word Up, our annual spoken word slam. It’s a big deal. I’m gonna be in it, read a bit of my play.” 

   I didn’t need any convincing.   

* * * 

   Although the sun was scheduled to rise at 7:44, when I inched out of bed, it was barely visible over the rolling hills that surrounded our rented, eco-friendly compound, isolating it from the other houses that speckled the desert. Cocooned in a blanket against the winter chill, I hopped over to the door of the mud house. Naked underneath, I let the blanket fall to the floor, ran out the door, and squatted on the cracked earth to pee. Then I ran back, scooped up the blanket, and dove into bed. Although the space heater would have warmed the one-room, circular hut quickly, there had been no sun the day before, and the energy reserve from the solar panel was dangerously low. All we needed to do was get dressed for a day of hiking and load up the car, so using electricity then wasn’t worth the risk of having none later. 

   Half an hour later, we sped around the hillocks, leaving a wave of dust behind us. When we hit the paved road, we rolled into a patchwork of marooned Airstreams, camouflaged adobe structures, century-old wooden buildings, and homes similar to ours, made from mud and repurposed trash. It seemed unlikely that each home had a legal property boundary. I guessed that people had shown up, stopped their RVs at an acceptable distance from others, and then never turned over the engine again, thereby claiming a patch of land as their own. 

   Even in the small cemetery, the idea of defined plots seemed unrealistic. The ground was so inhospitable that the dead were interred above it, covered with piles of rocks, their graves marked by two pieces of scrap wood nailed together in a shape roughly resembling a cross.  

   We arrived at the town’s only coffee shop, a mostly outdoor cafe with a three-foot by eight-foot indoor area for ordering and food pickup. We squeezed in behind another couple, a woman and a person of indeterminate gender who we later deciphered was a man. His identity wasn’t ambiguous in an intentional, boundary-pushing, progressive kind of way. He simply existed as he was and had no reason to care about others’ interpretations of what was beneath his clothes. He spoke animatedly in a high-pitched voice about the minutia of his life while the female companion who towered over him listened attentively. Eventually it came out that the water line to the town had burst during the night and this man was on the crew responsible for fixing it. 

   With the water line down, the shop’s surprisingly sophisticated selection of caffeinated beverages was whittled down to two, drip coffee and tea. But in a town with only one place to get your morning fix, you don’t act peevish toward the staff when you can’t get a soy latte or a dirty chai. You also don’t hassle the man you need to fix the problem. Everyone who showed up after us cheerfully greeted our apparently well-known male vestibule companion, and expressed total understanding about his need for coffee, waffles, and chit-chat before he could get on with the repair business. 

   Feeling claustrophobic as I waited for what I didn’t yet know would be the tastiest breakfast burrito I’ve ever had, I stepped outside to examine the bulletin board. The morning was chilly, and a man walking in remarked to me that someone should start a fire in the pot belly stove that was on the patio. I nodded, then resumed perusing the flyers for a local artist’s show at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon, a potable water delivery service, a dentist eighty miles away in the town of Alpine, and a polite reminder that garbage removal was everyone’s responsibility. 

   An SUV pulled up and a gaggle of older, bulky women in flowing, brightly colored clothing and large hats piled out. They buzzed around the patio, remarking several times on how chilly the morning was and wondering out loud why someone didn’t start a fire. One of them hip-checked me in her urgency to post another advertisement on the bulletin board for yet another art sale, presumably her own. 

   Booted from my post, I snuck back inside for a moment to grab the local paper. The headline story was about a man who had his land confiscated by the feds so they could build the border wall. Such stories were commonplace in this part of the country. Some landowners were compensated for their property for pennies on the dollar. Others were compensated fairly for the land value, but not for the loss of revenue that would follow the loss of half their ranch. Still other landowners were promised life-changing compensation that made them sign on the dotted line with lightning speed, but then never received the money. Down there, “land of the free” meant the land was free for the government to take.  

   Caffeinated at last, my partner and I left town to spend the day in Big Bend National Park, where 118 miles of slow-moving Rio Grande water, sometimes a mere thirty-feet wide, separated Mexico and the United States. The tranquility made the concept of a border wall even more offensive. The government had already spent one million dollars to install an unmanned immigration kiosk at the park crossing to Boquillas del Carmen. Prior to September 11, 2001, people had been freely crossing to enjoy lazy afternoons of tacos and beer for decades without incident. Now, the xenophobic zealots and the politicians who encouraged their idiocy wanted to further blemish the beauty of the park and destroy its ecosystem. A wall would block the migration of bears, big horn sheep, ocelots, mule deer, and panthers whose instincts know nothing of lines on a map.  

   The nonsense of the whole plan was almost enough to make me want to join the motley crew of vagabonds and societal rebels in the self-managed, resurrected ghost town of Terlingua. But like most of us who are induced by travel to fantasize about the other lives we could lead, I was destined to soon be pulled back into mainstream culture. But not quite yet.  

   Back in town, covered in dried sweat and grime after a long day of hiking through the Chisos mountains, I was grateful for the warmth of the late afternoon. The only plumbing installed in our earthen home was in the outdoor shower, but the single faucet handle meant the water temperature would only provide as much heat as the sun had granted. 

   Pre- and post-scrubbing, we wandered the property naked. We examined the wine bottle and old tire construction of the house walls. We looked for tarantulas and rattlesnakes. We yelled as loud as we could because we could. I felt like a child allowed to play nude in the front yard to combat the summer heat, back before the 24-hour news cycle of stories of kidnapping and child molestation drove us all behind locked doors. 

* * * 

   No one would expect that in a town with an official population of fifty-eight finding a parking spot would be difficult, even on a Saturday night. Yet when we pulled into the La Kiva parking lot for a second evening, that was exactly the problem we faced. Inside, it was no easier to find a place for our bottoms than it had been to find a place for the car. We hovered at the entrance to the grotto and were bumped into repeatedly by locals comfortable enough to squeeze their way onto already overflowing benches inside. They whistled and shouted out to each other by name upon taking and leaving the stage. I felt a twinge of jealousy and also of irritation at myself for not having prepared a five-minute presentation of my writing, as my partner suggested I should. The atmosphere was supportive and fun, and the quality of the readings rivaled anything we might have heard at a hipster café in New York City or San Francisco.   

   After performing, most people returned to their seats to hear their neighbors. But a few had another community engagement that evening and bolted, with apologies all around. When the quality of the readers downgraded from musings on patterns of speech across Texas to rhyming poems about dogs and the weather, we also figured a change of venue was in order.  

* * * 

   The High Sierra Bar and Grill was part restaurant, part hotel. About twenty people sat at tables covered in red tablecloths and watched an impromptu jam session. Only the singer and harmonica player, who both looked as if they had just walked off a construction site, sounded rehearsed. Other patrons joined in for a song or two, one with a harmonica, one with a melodica, and one with a metal paint bucket flipped upside down that he beat with hands covered in thin, acrylic gloves. This last musician received much applause after his participation. 

   More time passed and more Bud Light was consumed. An obese woman in a summer dress, though the January night temperature has fallen into the forties, danced with and kissed multiple people indiscriminately. A dog wandered in and no one made it leave. The Willie Nelson doppelgänger behind the bar lit up a cigarette. Several other patrons took that as a sign that the hour was too late to obey laws, so they lit up too. An old man rescued a younger man from the clutches of the curvaceous dancer, and when she spun off him toward another target, the two men looked at each other, shook their heads, and smiled. 

   A different man and woman chased each other in and out of the bar repeatedly. She crossed her arms, stamped her petite feet, and demanded the truck keys every time she came in. He ignored her until she punched his arm or got right up in his face, the top of her head barely reaching his chin. Then one of them would storm out the door, forcing the other to follow so they could argue under the illusion of privacy in the parking lot. After one such dramatic exit and re-entrance, the woman declared she was going to make a scene. Given what was already happening, I wondered what exactly that meant. A young girl who appeared to be of Native American heritage, stood in the corner, close to the kitchen door, and took it all in without expression.   

   “Have you had some of our cherry pie?” The waitress interrupted the scene. “You should really have some. The kitchen is about to close, but I wanted to make sure you had a chance to have some if you want. It’s really good.” 

   We ordered the pie. As we ate, a man in cowboy boots, a plaid shirt, and a trucker’s hat swayed over to our table. My partner sat up a little straighter, put both fists on the table, and puffed up his chest. People had been nothing but friendly to us, but some folks in remote corners of Texas don’t take kindly to outsiders, especially during a night of heavy drinking. The man leaned in. The words came out slowly and somewhat indistinctly, but we understood what they were—an apology for the fighting couple. Every town has a couple that loves to hate each other, and they were it. He hoped that we were having a good time.    

   We finished the cherry pie. Seconds after the waitress took our pie plate and forks back to the dishwasher, a short, dark-skinned woman who could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty stepped out of the kitchen and nodded to the young girl in the corner. The two of them departed. We decided we should do the same. 

   When the waitress brought the bill, she said, “I only charged you for apple pie. It’s cheaper.”  

   On the drive back out to our desert dome, somewhere in the back of my mind, images of home—Boulder, Colorado—floated around. Nine hundred miles away, streetlights illuminated perfectly smooth squares of sidewalk that clusters of young university students walked down. In the morning, people would walk by freshly painted houses and gardens filled with African daisies and frangipani on their way to examine the abundant produce and overpriced artisanal soaps in the farmer’s market. Sunlight would bounce off the plate glass windows of new office buildings as women sporting collagen implants and bright lipstick headed to yoga class. And all around the city, road cyclists in neon-colored spandex would zip by SUVs filled with Patagonia-clad outdoor enthusiasts heading to the mountains.

   I pushed them out. All I wanted right then was to keep sharing this tiny, dry patch of earth with the self-reliant community who belonged to it under an infinite, starry sky.

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