“Territory Notes: A Stranger Moves to Marfa, Texas” by Laura Long

One long August day in the year 2000, I moved to Marfa, Texas. I knew I wanted to live near Big Bend National Park. But I had little idea how I would make sense of my life now that I was on the verge of a divorce. I had my first full-time teaching job, instead of the several concurrent part-time jobs I had juggled for years. Maybe I was making what some people called progress.

Eight hours out of Houston, I crossed the trans-Pecos and cut left, taking the small road that headed south toward Mexico, and leaving behind the big road that headed west to New Mexico and Arizona. Semis roared over my shoulder, and then I slid down into the desert. I knew Marfa was considered “far west Texas”– four hundred miles west of San Antonio and two hundred miles east of El Paso. I didn’t know much more.

For a few hours, at intervals of about every sixty miles, I drove through towns of maybe 20 or 200 people. Tumbleweeds slowly rolled across the road. Over and over again, I braked for this articulation of wind, its slow lift and flow. Barb wire halted the tumbleweeds so they became stacked, quivering, along fences on both sides of the road. Yonder, in fizzled-looking grasses, a tumbleweed rolled free.

I hadn’t passed another car for an hour when rocky foothills started lifting and turning me around. Dizzy, I got out next to a sign that said Wild Rose Pass. I stretched. The trees looked half-dead, stark and stunted. Legions of clouds rolled over a tiny graveyard of worn wood crosses.

At my new house, desert dust was everywhere, inside and outside. I had bought an old adobe house where, till a month ago, two old people had lived until they couldn’t anymore. They had gone to the faraway place their son lived: Seattle. The house was filthy. “Uninhabitable,” the appraiser had stated, but the relator twisted her arm to make her say it was worth the selling price. I had bought the house knowing this.

The neighbors stared at the me, the new professor at the nearby University as if I  had driven out the old people. From their porches they  watched me, stone-faced. There goes the neighborhood–divorced white gal, how come she doesn’t have kids?  Come here from Houston, gonna teach over at the college. A  professor, the locals shrugged. The new town investor, a lawyer who flew his plane in from Houston every weekend, sneered. So you want tenure, right?

Slowly–it was accelerating now, it would become a frenzy in a few years–Marfa was being taken over, bought up by admirers–some said worshippers–of the artist Donald Judd. On the outskirts of town, his cold serene boxes marked out a polished minimalism in tangent with the desert sweep of space and hard blue mountains.

I watched—everyone there watched—as people with loads of money came to visit, as the town moved from being a mecca to a craze.  The visitors took pictures of the art and buildings, but not the kids. The Judd admirers were minimalists. So you couldn’t blame them for not seeing the kids they walked right by. You couldn’t expect them to realize the local kids were hungry. Luckily, 90% of the kids qualified for free school breakfasts and lunches, which cost a lot less than the cappuccinos the tourists bought at the new bookstore at the center of the nouveau riche boom. There, I heard a Houstonite who lived in Marfa part-time regal visitors with cute stories about the locals. “The girls get their High School Senior pictures taken holding their babies!”

A Hispanic man in his 50’s who had lived in Marfa all his life told me another story. After I saw there were two graveyards on the outskirts of town, one for whites and one for Mexican-Americans, I asked him what it was like to grow up there. He said, “We weren’t allowed to speak Spanish in school. When I was in first grade, the teacher took a rock and said, ‘This is the Spanish language.’ Then she took us out to a corner of the playground where someone had shoveled a hole in the ground. She put the rock in the hole and made us all pour handfuls of dirt over the rock till it was buried.”

The tourists—always in black and with cameras, so they were easy to spot–didn’t notice how the local people stared at them, the young with curiosity, the old with sideways flicks of their eyes. Again and again, someone rented a Main Street space that had been a crowded little store, renovated it, and turned it into a little gallery. Meanwhile, an elderly Hispanic woman two doors down from me, who had rented her adobe house for decades, was given notice. She moved to a growing trailer park on the edge of town. I wouldn’t see her wheeling her granddaughter around the block in a baby carriage anymore.

I didn’t understand how insistent and suffocating the gentrification would be until later, and I didn’t comprehend the old local alliances and grudges. I just noticed the tension. Some neighbors were either raising kids or complaining that their kids had left town as soon as they could. Some neighbors were arty transplants, Judd proteges who dressed in black and scuffed boots, wore retro glasses, drove vintage trucks, and didn’t need jobs. A few people I met at the coffee shop considered buying an adobe house they would visit twice a year. They chatted about how Marfa needed a dry cleaner’s and a pharmacy, and what a hassle it would be for them to furnish an extra house, all the little things you needed to make sure you had on hand.

This place seemed a little weirder than most, but I was accustomed to not fitting in.

I heard things here and there—people liked to gossip, something I’ve never been good at, which is too bad because it can be so interesting. One new Houstonite who had opened a gallery and planned to live in Marfa for months, not just weekends, tried to make inroads with the matrons of the town. She invited them over for Sunday brunch.   “Turns out she’s just a bimbo,” a local woman marveled afterwards, yet her tone was not judgmental. She seemed appreciative, in a weird way.

 The outsiders remained fascinating specimens to the clutch of local, older white women whose families owned ranches. They had grown up scanning the sky for rain clouds. Now, with the cattle ranching almost dead, they watched their husbands grow old and barrel about town with time on their hands. The price of ranch land was rising. Steve Jobs was not the first billionaire to fly down and put an offer on a famous old ranch. The rain might not come any time soon, but the millionaires would.

I shrugged. I was just glad I lived here because of the wild national park, Big Bend.

Many of the new people didn’t go to Big Bend, even once. It wasn’t for sale, so it didn’t interest them. Beauty, it seemed, was bound up with money.

I noticed this and was baffled. I didn’t realize I was lucky to be baffled. I just felt dumb.

That first winter, as soon as I had a few days off, I got into my old truck and drove to Big Bend and slept in the desert with my dog. When the sun rose, a crow flapped in front of it, cawing.  It was Christmas Day. I felt alone and safe and almost blessed. All around, the desert was lighting up in shades of brown, dusty green, dull red, and lavender.  The intricate beauty — sprays of ocotillo, meandering arroyo cuts, the chiseled Chiso mountains– had nothing to do with what I had seen a few mornings before — three dark-eyed kids staring at a pale stranger who pulled a twenty from a smooth roll of bills to pay for two skinny cappuccinos. Then the man put the fat clip of money down on the counter, and let it sit there by his elbow while he talked to his companion.

The kids kept eyeing him discreetly. I wondered if they never seen so much cash before, placed by an elbow so carelessly. The safety, the ease of the stranger, this art-admiring tourist–could it simple be called arrogance? “No one can claim innocence,” Toni Morrison wrote.

That Christmas morning in the desert, I wondered, “Why do I have to come miles into the desert before I feel at ease?” I knew there was no answer except the deep language of place, of earth.

In January, I went back to the classroom. With my students, almost all of whom had grown up on the border, I was reading Fahrenheit 451. I read aloud, “The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam. . . . Yet somehow we think we can grow, feeding on flowers and fireworks, without completing the cycle back to reality.” The students gazed, frowned, chewed pens, and a few of them stared at me attentively, or doubtfully. They waited for me to make sense. I took a deep breath. I tried to begin again.

photo by Paige Critcher

Laura Long’s books include the novel ‘Out of Peel Tree,’ two poetry collections, and the co-edited anthology ‘Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia.’ Her writing appears in ‘Appalachian Review’ ‘Arts & Letters,’ ‘Shenandoh,’ ‘Still,’ & many other magazines. She lived in Austin, Houston, and far west Texas for 20 years and now teaches at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia.