When you escape your life at 45, as in a Thelma and Louise-level escape, you go to the desert. My best friends of 25 years joined me. We were all leaving behind something. Beth and Miriam were leaving their young children behind. Sara had just recovered from breast cancer; her mastectomy was fresh, just under a year. I was taking a break from kids, my husband and my 80-pound incessantly barking dog.
We picked Marfa, the artist hub in the middle of the West Texas desert as the destination of our road trip last winter. We had been traveling together for 15 years. The quirky art community was part of the reason we landed on Marfa. We wanted to fade into the weirdness of the town, with our identities washing away into the artist Donald Judd’s concrete blocks, the dry landscape and the big sky. We knew it would be the kind of place where you might forget to call your family. (Indeed, it was.)
If we were lucky, we’d get some much needed refueling, maybe a chance to scream in the middle of the road, or, like Thelma and Louise, innocently flirt with a Brad Pitt type of cowboy. And even though GPS would never allow any of us to get lost, we longed for that feeling of disappearing. Just temporarily.
Beth and Miriam drove from Austin. I flew from New Jersey into El Paso to meet Sara, who came in from Los Angeles.
We wanted to separate from the reality of our lives. Leave behind not just the kids and the responsibilities, but the newspaper headlines and cable news. Was that even possible?
In our all-American SUV, I gave it my best Bruce Springsteen-Thunder-Road-I’m-pulling-out-of-here-to-win moment and we tore out of El Paso onto 10 East doing 80 mph through the vast Chihuahuan Desert, passing through long stretches of flat landscape with puffs of sage brush for the three-hour drive ahead of us.
Past the Border Patrol checkpoint, past an abandoned truck stop, with a great old (nonworking) art deco-style neon sign that simply read “Truck Stop,” a 1960s relic; when Interstate 10 bypassed Sierra Blanca and it became something of a ghost town. That’s when it sunk in. We were really, finally nowhere.
Nightfall came quickly and the bluish Chinati Mountains disappeared in the darkness as we turned onto U.S. 90, a two-lane road leading into Marfa. A refurbished neon sign glowed in the pitch dark night; it read, vertically, in pink, “Stardust,” then underneath in blue, “Motel.” Except there was no motel. Not a soul in sight. And when you’ve been driving for two-plus hours down a dark desert highway, it gets creepy. Sara and I had fallen under the spell of the hypnotic yellow lines down the center of the road. Awful country music streamed from the radio, coming in and out of frequency.
That’s when I saw it. A beam of light in the shape of an orb hopped across the road and just as quickly disappeared.
I grabbed onto the wheel and screamed and then Sara screamed, “What is it? What! What?”
“I think we’re seeing our first UFO.”
I was half-kidding, half-serious. We were in West Texas. Roswell, New Mexico, where ominous UFO stories have been churned out for decades, was only four hours from here. Plus Marfa had its own weird phenomenon called the Marfa Lights. Yellowish orbs had been spotted flashing through this desert since the late 1800s. (There’s even a Mystery Lights Viewing Area, a truly unusual roadside center where people gather nightly.)
I didn’t pull over because when you think you see a UFO in the desert and there’s no one around, you don’t pull over. I have enough nostalgic alien movies under my belt to know this. However, I slowed down the car and there they were again — orbs the size of grapefruits, miles away. My heart pounded because it was only the beginning of our journey and we had already descended into a Steven Spielberg extraterrestrial movie. But as we drove closer, we realized they weren’t free-floating orbs at all. They were just truck lights dipping in and out of the sightline. And there you have it: My first desert mirage.
During our four-day road trip, our home base was El Cosmico, a quirky hotel and campground on 21 acres, filled with vintage trailers (Beth and I stayed in a 24-foot, 1950s Branstrator with a turquoise-painted top), Sioux-style teepees and yurts. Sara and Miriam holed up in a bright pink 1953 Vagabond trailer.
That first night we reserved a wood-fired, barrel-like hot tub. We opted for moonlight and naked bodies. We’ve been friends for a quarter-century and this wasn’t our first time in a hot tub together in our birthday suits. The steam rose above the tub and the moon peeked through as we sipped our wine in the darkness. It felt good to be together. No men.
In the morning, while everyone was asleep, I headed over to Marfa Burrito. It was a little house. Inside, Mexican decorations and pictures of Matthew McConaughey covered the wood-paneled walls. A fuchsia poster board listed five burrito choices, including egg and chorizo, bean and cheese and my personal favorite, the Primo, stuffed with beans, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, salsa and cheese, for only $6.50.
Ramona Tejada, the owner, was a cute middle-aged woman with glasses and a woven sun hat. I ordered a cheese-and-egg burrito. “Huevos con queso,” I said in my survival Spanish, and she smiled. There were three other women cooking in the kitchen. One man, sitting in the corner, sorted red chilies.
We took the day to roam around Marfa, stopping at the Food Shark, a food truck that’s a bit of a culinary institution and a great spot for people watching. You can drive through Marfa in a blink of an eye, but you can’t miss the mix of urbanites and folks who, I’m guessing, were transplanted from hip, urban spaces; people with purple hair and horn-rimmed glasses clomping around in muddy cowboy boots.
We drifted from one strange experience after another. First we played Ping-Pong in the local artist Michael Phalen’s gallery. We shopped at Ranch Candy, an oddities-and-gift shop on the main drag, and chatted with the shop owner, an amiable guy with wide silver-rimmed glasses. (I bought an embroidered, vintage Western shirt there for my husband, Andy.)
We stopped later at a gas station to fill up the tank, attempted to pump gas from a nonworking pump, then quickly realized that it was not a gas station after all — but an art exhibit. (Instead of prices for gas, the sign read: “ART.” Who knew?) And that night, we saw an experimental chamber opera, “Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance,” about the life of the Mexican Revolutionary general, at The Crowley Theater, a single-story, weathered stone building with a curved Spanish colonial facade; a string of white globe lights outlined the building in the velvety black sky.
But Marfa also had a dusty, timeworn Texas feel. Turquoise pickup trucks were parked on the street. Most buildings had midcentury Spanish facades. (Marfa is about 60 miles from the Mexican border.) A Union Pacific train ran through the middle of town. We strolled past cattle feeders and beat-up hardware stores with nothing in the window but a deer head and portable gas cans for sale. And if anything speaks old-school cinematic Texas history, it’s the movie “Giant,” starring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, filmed here in 1955. Life-size photos from the movie line the 1930s-era Hotel Paisano.
Marfa is an eccentric and remarkable mix of artists and cowboys. Their seemingly comfortable coexistence is most likely owed to the vision of artist Donald Judd. Judd, who died in 1994, is the magnet of art pilgrimages to Marfa. In 1971, a successful minimalist artist, he moved to Marfa with his children to escape the New York art scene, turning abandoned offices of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps into his home and personal work space. La Mansana de Chinati, informally known as The Block, which is part of the Judd Foundation, is a space so large it took up an entire city block and encompassed two airplane hangars.
So in the morning, we took a guided tour at The Block. Everything at The Block was symmetrical. The metal and glass doors. The endless bookshelves. The stack of woodcut yellow and blue plexiglass installations, all isolated rectangular blocks, hung vertically on the wall. The concrete raised pool. The plum trees in a line, one after another. Symmetrical, except, one could argue, for the old, yet working, grain mill across the street, with its machinery churning and grinding all afternoon.
The mill was loud. Leave it to my friend Miriam to look beyond the art. “You move all the way to the desert,” she said, “and you built an art compound across the street from a grain mill?”
Fair point. But it wasn’t the clamor of the mill that bothered me. It was the 9-foot-tall adobe brick wall. I was sick of walls. And 8-foot fences. And border delineations. I lived in a tight suburban New Jersey enclave with one neighbor’s driveway only 10 feet from my house.
“We need to drive back out to the desert,” I told my friends after the tour. We all agreed that it was time to go.
When you leave Marfa, it’s a deep dive into the rural framework of Texas. Back to the grasses and the yucca. The uninterrupted sky. A whole lot of space to fill. And what a sky it was! It had been so fickle, now finally we saw glimmers of bright blue patches above the long dark ribbon of a road ahead. Look at that road! With nothing on it!
“This would be a good time to stand in the middle of the road,” Beth said. And she was the family therapist. The reasonable one! It was a spur of the moment suggestion. No reasoning behind it. We might be getting older, but in Texas, in the desert, you can still pull over, jump in the middle of the road and not a soul will know about it.
We hopped out of the car and screamed our heads off, drunk with all of the space. And it was exhilarating! When my kids were little, I told them not to run into the street about 100 times. (Maybe more?) Here we were, four women in our mid-40s. It went against all of our instincts as responsible adults, and we let those instincts go into the wind that night.
The sun was quickly dropping into the desert so, after our “I’m the queen of the road” stunt, we got back in the SUV and I revved up to 80 again. In my path were two large black crows, snacking on roadkill. I slowed down a bit so they’d have time to ascend, but one got caught by the wind and it swooped down with a sharp force. My car plunged into it, everyone screamed and the bird propelled into my windshield. I did what any sane person would do when something large is coming at you: I ducked, yet my hands remained steady on the wheel.
For whatever reason — maybe it was the desolate road, maybe it was how fast I was driving, or my desert head space — but my instinct was to simply duck, not to swerve. I’m a good driver. I can take a highway or a city street. But this was not a normal reflex. I’m telling you, I didn’t move that wheel. I’m going to chalk it up to adrenaline. Something raced inside of me that said “Get your head down. Now.”
After we all calmed down a bit, once the screaming was over, Beth put her hand on my elbow. She asked me if I was OK. I nodded.
“You handled that perfectly,” Beth said, trying to calm me.
“I didn’t handle it perfectly at all,” I said. “I killed an enormous bird.” I knew it was dead. It had catapulted into the field behind us; I saw it in the rearview mirror when I briefly peeked.
The manic energy leading up to that moment flattened out. Music turned down. Everyone still. But that black bird was not my albatross. I wouldn’t let it be, I told myself (and it wasn’t, but all of that driving will play tricks on you).
We sailed along the road, quieter, through the low tawny grass, past the sprawling ranches along U.S. 90 to a spot we’d all been talking about visiting: The Prada Marfa.
Then there it was, a shining beacon of consumerism, nestled into the landscape, this landmark, Prada Marfa, a fake Prada store, a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Right in the middle of the desert, about 37 miles northwest of Marfa. It’s a small building that looks like a stand-alone storefront with wide windows. A few purses and shoes on display, donated by Miuccia Prada. Absolutely nothing else but miles and miles of empty ranchland on each side of it.
This building is a lone rider, is as if someone had airlifted it into the desert. Or an apocalyptic relic, the only sign left of modern commercialism.
Berlin-based artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset built the cultural landmark in 2005 with the help of the Marfa art collective, Ballroom Marfa. In 2014, Beyoncé did a split jump in front of the structure, posting it to her Instagram and sealing the Prada Marfa’s cultural fate forever.
A pink sky erupted around the building as we modeled in our most Instagrammable poses. This may sound cliché, but at sunset, it truly does feel like you’ve entered a painting. So yes, the visit to Prada Marfa was worth it.
In the morning, we hit Marfa Burrito again to fuel up before our drive out of town.
Ramona recognized me and waved from the kitchen with her brilliant smile, calling out, “Hola, chica!” This time her sister-in-law Lucy, a warm woman with beautiful blue eyes and thick lashes, took my order. The line was out the door.
We made our way up State Highway 17 to Davis Mountains State Park, which averages about 5,000 feet above sea level, for a hike. We usually hike at least once on our road trips — why not hit the highest mountain range in Texas? It was sunny and bright that morning, this time, the Chinati Mountains in the distance popped up over the desert landscape. We played an eclectic soundtrack: Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara,” the B-52’s “Dance This Mess Around” and Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again.”
“I don’t want to go home,” Sara said. A cancer survivor, she didn’t want to face follow-up tests. But it wasn’t just that. I knew she didn’t want to get back to work, the day-to-day routine. None of us did. And who wants to when you can surround yourself with art, eat fantastic food and drive on long, empty roads. This trip was a dream. I missed my kids and husband on every trip I’d ever been on, but this time, I was content to drive my way into this beautiful country of ours, through the fields and crevices and never reappear again.
A few hours later, after the hike, we pulled into Blue Agate and Rocks, a small roadside crystal shop — the sign above the door simply says “Rock Shop” — in Fort Davis, about 21 miles from Marfa. Owner Donna Trammell was a petite, older woman, her face etched with lines, perhaps from years of crystal-hunting in the West Texas sun.
“How do you pick a crystal?” I asked her, dizzy from the dozens of glittering rocks that packed her shelves. “You have so many.”
“You have to listen to the rocks. They talk to you,” she said, passing a row of 30-pound purple amethysts and smaller, metallic iron pyrite. “I’m serious. If you pass one spot and pick it up, it’s because the rock is talking to you.”
A large chunk of selenite, also known as a shaman stone, spoke to me. It was a cloudy white crystal with thick jags, a little larger than the palm of my hand and reminded me of the moon.
It was our last day in West Texas and we were determined to pack it in. Still in our sweaty hiking clothes, we drove straight to The Chinati Foundation (another decommissioned army base that Judd had turned into an art compound) to experience Judd’s “15 untitled works in concrete,” which is essentially 15 giant gray rectangles settled in the middle of massive ranchland. I ran my fingers through the high yellowed grasses, relishing the open space and these architectural formations.
Maybe my face seemed content and wise, because a small group approached us with a confused look. “Help us,” a woman from Houston said, pleading. “Did you get it? We don’t get it. Help us get it.”
We tried some textbook explanations about how the concrete boxes are unexpected, an alteration of reality. When none of that worked, I told her in my blunt East Coast manner, “We don’t have fields like this in New Jersey.”
Just down the road was the permanent exhibit, “From Dawn to Dusk,” by large-scale installation artist Robert Irwin that had opened in July 2016. There were two entrances: One is light, the other is dark. We walked in from the dark side, gradually making our way into the light. This is the way you want to end a trip. Basking in the light, completely transformed and blissed out.
And in the light, that was when we spotted him: a tall, handsome cowboy giving a small art tour. Every Thelma and Louise road trip story like ours needed a Brad Pitt moment and we found ours at The Chinati Foundation.
His name was Chris Cole and truly, he looked like Richard Prince’s iconic Marlboro Man with his unmussed brown corduroy jacket, his tall cowboy build, his long hair and his 10-gallon hat. We overheard him talking about ranch water and because there’s nothing wrong with flirting, we asked what it was. Turns out ranch water was a simple mix of tequila, lime juice and soda water.
“Nothing special, but fun to say,” he said. “Thanks for coming all the way to Marfa.” And he seemed like he meant it.
Chris the Cowboy — or as we deemed him later that night, the “Hottie from Chinati,” as we gulped down our ranch waters at the Hotel Saint George bar where we stopped in for a drink after dinner — had walked away into the sunset.
Our last night in the trailer, the four of us cozied up under colorful serapes, reading animal spirit cards. We were wistful about leaving Marfa and leaving each other. It would probably be another year until the four of us set out on another adventure.
Before we left town on that bright Sunday morning, we stopped again at Marfa Burrito. Ramona and Lucy invited us to the back, in the kitchen, where we hugged them and thanked them for feeding us for our entire trip. “That’s what we do, feed people and make them feel good,” Lucy said. They certainly did.