Monday, November 14, 2005

Marfa, Texas

Friends: The welcoming sign to Marfa announces itself as "What the West Was." That is as debatable as any town motto, though Hollywood has chosen Marfa to represent the West many times. One of the most noteworthy was the James Dean western "Giant."

My entry to Marfa from the west was less than auspicious, even though it included the first herd of cattle I'd seen since entering Texas, as the surrounding Chihuahua desert so far hadn't provided much vegetation for munching. The only billboards were a couple advertising the local Dairy Queen. I stopped at a run-down RV park to see if I might be able to get a shower, but it was so run-down it didn't provide a communal shower room. Just beyond it was a much weathered sign for the Stardust Motel, all that remained of it. There wasn't even a remnant of rubble to mark its spot. As I entered this town of 2,121, there were more closed and boarded up motels and restaurants and auto shops than businesses still showing signs of life.

Despite the early indicators, Marfa is not in imminent danger of becoming another ghost town. As I neared the center of the town I came upon a series of well-maintained art galleries. It is art that keeps a pulse in this isolated, somewhat forlorn town in west Texas. It is largely due to the minimalist artist Donald Judd, who founded the Chinati Foundation here in the '70s,appropriating an old fort on the outskirts of town, turning its grounds and huge barracks into galleries. It has made Marfa a magnet for artists. There were a dozen or more galleries scattered about town. One was in garage on the main drag through town. It opened just two months ago by a photographer who had moved from from Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place where art galleries are like a fungus. He said such a space would have cost him $100,000 there. Here he acquired it for virtually pennies.

There are abandoned and boarded up buildings all over. A pizza restaurant operates out of a former gas station at the main intersection in town, the lone stop sign along state highway 90 for 100 miles. The nearest airport is 150 miles away, the nearest movie theater 80 miles. Still, the town had quite a bit of charm. A stately, towering court house forms the town center. Nearby is the El Paisano Hotel where the cast of "Giant" stayed. It has been declared a national Historic Site. A glitzy book store with free Internet and the Brown Recluse used book store, home of the best coffee in Texas, are signs this isn't a typical, slowly dying, semi-abandoned west Texas town.

I meandered its labyrinth of streets in search of the home of my friend Keller, who unfortunately was off on a motorcycle trip, depriving me of a truly thorough tour of the town and all its lore, as David gave me of Phoenix. I could well imagine the stories Keller would have had of his neighbors and the Border Patrol compound that took up nearly a city block near the Chinati Foundation. The compound was a mere postage stamp, however, compared to the extensive quarters the Border Patrol has in the middle of the desert ten miles outside El Paso 150 miles back. Millions and millions of dollars are being spent patrolling the border.

I arrived in Marfa a day ahead of schedule thanks to tailwinds that allowed me three consecutive one hundred mile days, including one of 130 miles. Not even the 30-mile gauntlet of every franchise known to man through El Paso could deter me from 100 miles the day after my forced 100 miles to Columbus along the Mexican border in New Mexico. The El Paso sprawl extended into New Mexico and the town of Sunland. There wasn't even a welcoming sign to Texas, though I well knew I was there with the sudden profusion of Lone Star flags, a flag I was well familiar with from the Tour de France from all the rabid Texans coming in support of Lance.

I entered El Paso from the north west, where it is confined by a ridge of mountains for ten miles most of the way into the heart of the city. Then I headed east towards Carlsbad Caverns. After ten miles or so, the signs of civilization began to thin out and I thought I was freed of its stranglehold, but the sprawl sputtered on for another ten miles until the valley floor ended and the mountains began. There were recently built communities of prefab homes that went for blocks and blocks off into the desert. The sign to one management center pleaded, "Buy something." It was quite a frightening site, even more frightening then the array of junkyards with rows of bashed in cars and trucks snarling at the passing traffic. I have never seen such an assortment of bail bondsmen and x-rated bookstores. A documentarian would most certainly find plenty of material along this stretch.

Even though there is no livestock to be seen in these parts, the land is all fenced in, making camping a little more challenging than usual. One night I had to trespass through a gate that had bars wide enough to slip my bike through. I don't necessarily start looking for a place to camp any earlier than usual, as I still prefer to do it just before dark. The moon is near full and provides adequate illumination if I need to extend my search too far after the sun has set. Its almost like being in Iceland or Scandinavia in summer when it never gets least for a couple more nights.

The favorable winds will allow me to make it to Dallas, 500 miles away, before I must end this journey and board the train. I will get to visit one last friend, Mike from Chicago, whose company transferred him down here several months ago. He lives near a lake, and has a boat. It will be a nice place to finish these travels. Dallas is north and east, just the way the winds have been blowing. I was ogling a 200-mile day a few days ago when I had 47 miles under my belt by 9:30 one morning. I've had several double centuries over the years, but not in a long time. But the road turned south when I came to the Guadalupe National Park and I lost my tailwind. My average speed fizzled from 18.2 mph to 15.1 for the day, but still the highest for the trip. I was hardly lamenting my lot, however, as I was on a 55-mile stretch of highway, Texas state route 54, that was lonelier than the official "Loneliest Highway in America," route 50 in Nevada that I biked early in these travels. Only one vehicle passed me in 36 miles, a cattle truck, and then three scattered pick-up trucks the final 19 miles into Van Horne on Interstate 10. But it was Saturday afternoon and the #2 ranked Longhorns were on TV. Football is more of a religion in this state than anywhere on the planet. Anyone not glued to a TV set watching the state team would have a lot of explaining to do.

Later, George

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