Van Horn, TX, USA

the darkening sky

About an hour out of Marfa, it started to rain. The sky had been getting darker over the Guadalupe Mountains for a while, but I wouldn’t be able to tell how severe the storms were until I was in them. There had been light showers on and off since leaving Austin and I still had a couple hours to Carlsbad, where I had a prepaid room at the Super 8 off the highway.

I was feeling pretty good. There was barely anyone else on the road, which had wide shoulders that dipped into the Chihuahuan Desert on either side.

Big, clunky raindrops soon became a downpour. I was grateful that I had figured out how to use the windshield wipers in the U-haul. I pressed the button to disengage the “tow-haul” function, which a sticker on the dashboard advised to turn off when driving on wet roads. I made sure my lights were on, turned up the defogger, leaned forward, and clutched the steering wheel.

I felt for any sign that I was hydroplaning. Things seemed steady, but just in case, I drove halfway in the shoulder to avoid the pools forming in the grooves of asphalt where tire treads normally went. Every once in a while, a semitruck passed in the opposite direction, pounding me with a wave.

The ground was quickly filling with water. Silvery pools surrounded the bases of the shrubs and short grasses, which glowed almost neon under the low clouds. I worried that the water would cross the road, or completely envelope it.

I was glad when the rains slowed because the road was narrowing and there wasn’t as much room to pull over. But then they started again, faster and harder than before. When I spotted the entry to a ranch road up ahead, I decided to wait it out for a while. I put on my hazards, backed in, killed the engine, and watched.

It was 2:45pm. I told myself that when the clock hit 3, I should do something, but I wasn’t sure what. I didn’t know how far it was to the next town and I couldn’t get cell service. The only option would be the ranch house.

A few minutes later, I hopped on a caravan of cars stuck behind a semi, figuring the added danger of other people outweighed the risk of being stranded. The rains continued to beat down on us, and I wondered if I had made the right decision, but then I saw a sign that said “Van Horn: 10 mi.”

By the time I got to town, my only thought was to find my next connection, so I followed the signs to TX Hwy. 54, which snaked further into the Guadalupes. There were spots of darkness in the sky ahead, but I tried to convince myself they weren’t as bad as the ones before.

I got a little worried when the only car I encountered was going the other way, and flashed its lights at me.

I kept going. I thought that if I could just make it one more hour, I would hit the Interstate again, be in a more populated area, with more options. Then if I needed to stop, I would at least be close enough to Carlsbad that I could wait it out at some roadside restaurant, and get to my hotel room, stay on schedule.

At least the road I had been on before was flat. Now there was elevation—sure, it wasn’t the Rockies, but there was more contour, more depth to the valleys. As I rounded a curve, a creek of caramel-colored water rushed beside me.

I went around another curve and encountered a huge puddle that almost covered the road. The water was shallow enough on one side for me to pass through without submerging the tires. I kept going, but I was scared. I knew I should probably turn around. So why didn’t I?

I catalogued the reasons: The hotel room was non-refundable … I couldn’t get off schedule, because that would mean changing my entire plan for the rest of the trip … I would be charged 40 cents per mile if I went over my U-haul contract … but what was the real reason? Did I have something to prove? Did I fear failure that much? What would it mean about me if I stopped right then and turned around? Was I being brave? Or stubborn? Or just stupid?

Less than a mile later, I saw the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. There were 10 or 12 small town Texas lawmen, with their hands on their hips, looking back at me from across a raging brown river that had completely overtaken the highway.

I suddenly felt very alone, and extremely vulnerable. I wondered how much more rain it would take for that puddle I had just driven through to become impassible. I turned around and sped the 15 or 20 miles back to Van Horn, watching the encroaching clouds in the driver’s side mirror.

When I finally made it back into town, I prayed that I could get a room for the night, but I wasn’t even sure if there was a motel. I had barely noticed anything when I had gone through earlier. The rains were coming harder again. I wondered if I could stay in the truck if I needed to. But when I reached the main intersection, I saw the back of a sign attached to the top of a big old building: “Hotel El Capitan.”

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I was ready to give them my whole sob story, to beg for help, but it turned out that I didn’t have to. They had a room for me, looking down into the courtyard, that would normally cost $218 a night, but they would give it to me for $125.

I called the Super 8 and, after some finagling, they refunded my room. I spent the night with a bottle of grocery store wine, nachos, and back-to-back episodes of Project Runway, feeling blessed, not just because I had averted disaster, but because I realized that, in spite of my best efforts to control my destiny, some other force had stepped in and given me an upgrade. What had come to me in the form of a challenge was actually a gift. The lesson I got from all of it was that I deserve more than some fleabag traveler’s motel. And, in a larger sense, I deserve so much more than I have allowed myself to have.

The next morning, I walked around Van Horn and was taken in by its kitschy charm and even the beauty of its dilapidation. Something about the character of its disrepair touched me in a deep way. More than that, I was glad for the reminder that I don’t have control over everything. And grateful for the mysteries that unfold when I am ready to receive them.


At the edge of town, I came upon this amazing junk art and collectibles shop that I would have completely missed had I stayed on my original path. The store was closed, but I loved the sculptures and repurposed materials around the grounds.


In the end, I changed my route to stay on the Interstate the rest of the way, skipping Carlsbad all together and going through El Paso and Santa Fe instead.

new mexico My trip took an extra day, an extra hotel stay, and about 300 miles more than I had planned. The U-haul drop-off location was closed when I left the truck. I planned to go down there the next day and explain the situation, but before I even did that, I got my bill in an email. The U-haul place had zeroed-out the extra mileage, and I didn’t owe anything. I called them to make sure I was reading it correctly, and the guy said, “Oh, yeah, it looks like you had some extra miles on there… the system wanted to charge you $168, but I went ahead and removed that for you.”

Turns out, sometimes it’s not so bad to be diverted by a Texas flood.

Marfa, TX, USA

West Texas

When you start driving west from Austin, you can expect about six or seven hours of this. Except flatter. Those two hills in the background might make you think there’s something going on out there. But don’t be fooled. There’s not.

Driving a Uhaul, with only the radio for entertainment, you endure hours and hours with no reception at all except conservative talk or conjunto music. This leaves a lot of time to be with your own mind.

Just before I left Austin, my friend Seth gave me a documentary about the artist Anselm Kiefer called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow. In it, Kiefer says (paraphrasing  Heideggger), “It is only when one is bored, that one’s consciousness settles, reluctantly or even fearfully, on oneself and the nature of one’s own existence.”

I pondered my existence for about two hours. Then I sang every show tune I know. Then I picked up the signal for Marfa Public Radio and Chuck Berry sang me into town. 

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The first thing you see when you roll up on U.S. Route 67 is the Marfa “Mystery Lights” Viewing Center.

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Big ups, Bobby Stack.

The lights are seen at all times of year, at all times of night, and are said to be white, orange, yellow, red, green, or blue. They supposedly hover in place, move slowly across the sky, and dart off in random directions. In October 1989, one of my favorite television shows, Unsolved Mysteries, even did a segment on them. “Scientists” tell us that the lights are just reflections from  headlights and atmospheric phenomena. Maybe so, but I prefer to get my information from a man with a trench coat and a velvety baritone.

Marfa was established in the late 1880s as a railroad water station and was an Air Force training site for pilots in World War II. After that, the town faded into obscurity until the 1970s, when a big shot New York artist named Donald Judd moved there and started getting all artsy on its ass. From what I can tell from his Wikipedia page and a Google images search, he really liked squares and boxes.

donald judd image searchI mean, the guy practically INVENTED the standing CD tower. Sadly, Judd passed away in 1994, but his namesake Judd Foundation and the Chinati Foundation are still in Marfa continuing his legacy. Along with a whole bunch of other artists and galleries.

One of the most famous is about 40 miles northwest, on a desolate stretch of U.S. Route 90. In 2005, artists Elmgreen and Dragset erected Prada Marfa. You can’t go inside, but you can see real merchandise through the store window. It’s pretty freakin’ surreal.

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When you’re not looking at all the fancy art and shit, you will probably eat at Food Shark. They have a truck and a “day cafeteria.” The food was pretty good and the decor was sufficiently hip. If you’re into that kind of thing. Which I find that I am. Occasionally.

Just across the street from the hipster cafeteria is the Hotel Paisano, where most of the cast and crew of the 1956 film Giant stayed during production. Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean stayed in rented homes nearby, but a young up-and-comer named Dennis Hopper stayed at the hotel. I heard somewhere that when filming started, Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson made a bet to see who could get James Dean into bed first. Rock Hudson won.

As I was walking past the Marfa Public Radio storefront, a guy named Willie opened the door and invited me in to take pictures. He said that people are always coming in to take pictures there and he thought I might like to as well. He was right.

Other things I noticed around town… They like pink government buildings:

They also enjoy old-timey trucks:

But the thing that struck me most during my time in Marfa was just how much everything looks like art when you start seeing it that way.

Memphis, Tennessee, USA

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People warned me that Memphis was dirty and crime-ridden. They asked why I wanted to go, and I didn’t have any real answers. I just felt drawn. Maybe I had taken Paul Simon to heart: “For reasons I cannot explain there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland…”

I also didn’t know what to think of the hostel where I had booked a room. It was in a church. Like inside a church. And the website said that they require all guests to do a chore assigned by the hostel staff each day as part of staying there. Was this going to be a vacation or a punishment?

On my way out of Nashville, I stopped at The Hermitage, which is the plantation built by President Andrew Jackson (i.e., the dude on the $20 bill). I had never been to a real plantation before.

The house has been restored to look as much as possible like it did when Jackson died there in 1845, including original wallpaper and furnishings. During its peak, it had up to 150 slaves living and working on it.

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It is impossible to fathom what slavery was really like from our modern perspective. Even assuming the best conditions, the work was unbelievably grueling. For example, Jackson’s house slaves (who had it far better than the field slaves) prepared meals for upwards of 25 people a day with no running water or electricity, in the intense Southern heat, over open fires in a back kitchen. They began cooking at 3am for a meal that would be eaten at 3pm.

Jackson was a businessman who saw slavery as completely necessary. He was also a politician and military leader who gave orders to relocate Native Americans in order to further European expansion.

As much as I intellectually understand that Jackson lived in a different time, and that he, himself, overcame great odds—an Irish immigrant orphaned at 14, fighting in brutal wars as a teenager, a self-made frontiersman with little support who became a prosecutor, an army colonel, and the seventh president of the United States—I was unsettled by the whole experience at the plantation.

The museum and tour emphasize that the people oppressed by Jackson and our other forefathers would later use their rhetoric about democratic equality to fight for their full rights as U.S. citizens. I suppose that is something. But it really makes you think about who we revere as heroes in this society.

I arrived in Memphis later that night and found the hostel, which took up an entire floor of the church and had its own separate entrance.

The staff was young and cool. In the morning, they post a card on the entry table with each guest’s name and a requested chore for the day, which ranges from sweeping the kitchen floor to filling ice trays or wiping down the counter. It wasn’t bad at all.

The best part of the hostel was the location, right off the intersection of Young Ave. and Cooper St., in the midtown area, where there were several places to eat and drink, a popular bar called the Young Ave. Deli, a bookstore, and the Soul Fish Café, where I had the BEST blackened catfish in the entire world. I feel bad for you that you are not eating it right now. It was amazing.

IMG_2873 A few blocks down was a coffee shop called Otherlands Coffee Bar, where I had an excellent pimento cheese sandwich. (I mean, DAMN, the food was good). They had this bumper sticker:

IMG_2867I had a long list of things I wanted to see—from Sun Studios and Aretha Franklin’s birth home to more macabre landmarks like the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and the spot where Jeff Buckley drowned in the Wolf River. In the end, I didn’t even make it to Graceland. After all the museums in Nashville, I was just too burned out.

But I did make it to the Stax Musuem of American Soul Music.

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That night I hung out with a couple named Medhi and Carine. He is Haitian and she is African-French. They are exploring the States before going to Haiti, where they are going to teach schoolchildren.

They were incredibly beautiful souls—kind, generous, and warm. They said that they, too, had been warned about Memphis. It probably seems odd that a young black couple would choose to vacation in the American south.

It somehow made me proud of our country, that we were all pleasantly surprised. Not only was Memphis more racially integrated than any other city I have visited, but the locals were genuinely nice. (And did I mention THE FOOD? Holy cow.)

Meeting Medhi and Carine was the perfect counter-balance to my experience at The Hermitage. It gave me hope. Love prevails. Sometimes it just takes a long, long time.

Nashville, Tennessee, USA

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For the past six months, I have been on sabbatical. Which is a fancy way of saying I haven’t been doing shit. I quit my job in January and started traveling—up the West coast, then to Chicago, then back to Colorado.

But unless I can find a way to monetize watching episode after episode of Bones on Netflix, it’s pretty clear that Snoop Doggie Dogg is going to need to get a jobby job. For my last hurrah, I attended the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee. Since I was going to be in the area anyway (and I can watch Bones anywhere with WiFi), I extended my trip to check out Nashville and Memphis.

After Bonnaroo (Bonnaroooooooo!) I hopped a bus to the downtown Nashville hostel. Then I hopped off the bus and puked on the side of the road. Then I caught another bus, checked in to the hostel, and puked some more. Then I laid in bed for two days, shivering, feverish and fairly certain that I had contracted SARS or a virulent strain of bird flu from camping with all those glow-sticked, hula-hooping trustafarians. Thanks a lot, hippies!

But then I got better, and I set out to explore Nashville.

The first thing I discovered is that Nashville is just like Austin, in that it has a downtown full of theme bars and cover bands, where all the tourists go.

And then it has the  East Side where you will find all the bike shops, food trucks, and semi-ironic dance parties.

The East Side is just a quick 30-minute walk from downtown, and I was feeling pretty cocky for about the first 25 minutes because even in the Tennessee sun, I was barely breaking a sweat. I thought all those summertime bike rides in Austin had permanently acclimated me to the heat. I was like, c’mon wimps! This isn’t HOT. The minute I stopped walking, I was instantly sopping wet and tying my shirt around my waist junior-high style to cover the probable ass-crack-sweat marks coming through my pants. (I then dubbed this a “sweatkini”).

In the midst of my sweat-shaming, I happened upon this awesome shop and chatted with the owner, Greg Sturgeon. Greg gets discarded wood and found objects and turns them into new furniture. And he sells knives. So, if you’re ever in East Nashville and you a) need a new table, or b) need to cut someone/thing, Greg’s your guy.

Of course, the main attractions in Nashtown are the historical music sites. Like the Country Music Hall of Fame:

And the Ryman Auditorium, where they filmed The Grand Ole Opry:

And the new Johnny Cash Museum:

Here, you are reminded that, in addition to his brilliant music career, Johnny made appearances on some shitty, shit-tay film and television shows, i.e., the show Renegade starring Lorenzo Lamas.IMG_2708Finally, Nashville is home to the Hatch Show Print shop, which has made iconic music posters for everyone from Duke Ellington and James Brown to Merle Haggard and WIlco.

Next up: MEMPHIS! In the meantime, let me remind you of this song, which was in my head pretty much the whole time I was in Tennessee (Tennessee)… YOU’RE WELCOME.