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.”

elcapitan

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.

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