I grew up in West Texas, mostly in Wichita Falls, Abilene, Midland and Lubbock. So I have a high tolerance for desolation. Too many trees, too many mountains and I start feeling claustrophobic.
But even by my warped standards, the highway from Marfa to Van Horn in Far West Texas is desolate. You can see forever — a horizon that stretches, unbroken, for miles. An empty road. The land on either side of the road is fenced, but only occasional ranch houses can be seen from a distance. All of a sudden, you find yourself thinking of the very first people who came here, the native peoples, the Spanish conquistadors, the Anglo settlers.
The sheer loneliness and emptiness made me recall a story that’s always haunted me, of the legendary rancher Charles Goodnight’s wife — whose first name I don’t even know. She and her husband settled on a gigantic ranch in the Panhandle of Texas and he would be gone for days and weeks, herding cattle, mending fences. She would be left alone. She was so lonely at those times, I once read, that she found herself talking to the chickens.
Just a little beyond the tiny town of Valentine, on that desolate road, my husband and I were speeding along last week. He was gloating about the great mpg we were getting in the Prius (“Did I buy that car at the right time — or not?” he said for the hundredth time.) I’d fallen into the kind of hypnotic trance West Texas induces in people, when he mentioned something — not mpg — that got my attention.
“What did you say?” I asked him.
“We just passed a Prada store,” he said.
Well, he could have said we’d just passed the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower and it wouldn’t have had quite the same powerful effect on me. Prada? Prada?!
“Turn the car around immediately,” I said. My heart rate was out of control. Where was my credit card?
I guess we’re probably the last people on earth to know about this art project in the middle of nowhere in Far West Texas — a facsimile of a Prada boutique store, complete with shop window and a selection of 2005 shoes and purses on display. Prada Marfa, they call it.
We peered in the window, noting the two bullet holes in the glass (“Communication between two worlds,” a small sign notes). Along a ledge on the sides and back of the “store,” people have left their business cards under rocks. So we did, too. An occasional truck roared past, not slowing or stopping. I guess they were used to Prada Marfa, bored by the hoopla.
We got back into the car and kept on driving, through Van Horn, to Guadalupe Peak, which my husband insisted we had to see, since it’s the highest point in the whole state. Leaving the mountains, the land began to flatten and the grasslands disappeared into the harsh scrub brush we were so familiar with.
“Bet we could get some land really cheap around here,” my husband said for the umpteenth time. “Can’t you see us living around here?”
No, hell, no. But he kept up that kind of irritating chatter even when we drove into Pecos, where the wind was blowing red dust across vast, godforsaken vacant lots. “Why don’t you like Pecos?” he asked. “We could live here.”
I told him my only problem with Pecos was that I probably couldn’t find a tall enough tree to hang myself from (“Cut down Ma! She’s gettin’ mental again!”).
That’s West Texas for you, though. It leaves you talking to chickens, daydreaming about hanging trees, hallucinating about Prada boutiques. Once you’ve lived there, it’s in your blood. You can leave there, but you never escape. You just think you can.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)
I had no idea you lived in Wichita Falls! I lived there for 4 very long years (high school, which are long years anyway, no matter where you live). And I was born in Graham, 60 miles south of W.F. As falls Wichita, so falls Wichita Falls. And yes, that landscape is a killer, even though one might long for it a little bit from Madison Ave. If one had spent a lot of time there. And one did not have to live there ever again. Which would drive one insane.
I do love the landscape around Van Horn, and dream about it now and then, so I’ve enjoyed your Marfa posts (and not just because I can hear your husband’s cackle with his laser pointer). The one good thing I have to say about Pecos: cantaloupe.
Oh, yes, I hate to brag — but we were in Wichita Falls for the tornado of 1958. Our mother dragged my sister and me into the bathtub to protect us. The whole experience left me with a fear of bathtubs and my sister with an obsession with tornado sirens. We still have photos of her standing proudly in front of the sirens, but none of me in bathtubs. Wichita Falls can have that kind of effect on you.
Well, Prada of Marfa. We did same thing and had identical thoughts. The 5 ladies in the car said, “What da Hale ???” when we shot past a Prada store in the middle edge of the Chihuawan desert along Highway US 90. It took nearly a quarter of a mile to slow the minivan beast down and make a U-turn … Made no difference; twaint nary a car or truck in sight front or back. Back to the Prada store.
Well the 2002 shoes must have had record sales. We saw maybe 10 pair in the show window and store locked up tighter than a snare drumskin. The bullet holes presented protest exclamations or boredom insensitivities to the scene; yes communication from two different worlds.
Well, digital camera in hand, four of the five ladies showed leg, maybe ankle, maybe thigh for a photo op while this writer sneaked behind the building to let the horse out of the barn. Relieved, we piled back into the van to continue our trip.
Picture posted, adventure moved on until we saw the lights and billboards of Jct US 90 with the Interstate 10 superslab.
You’ve got to admit — it’s a real attention-grabber. Kind of nice, in particular, to discover it on your own and then wonder whether you’re going nuts.
Over the Labor day weekend I went through Valentine (where the Prada Marfa store is actually located) and it had been completely emptied. Currently there is some argument about restocking the store in Marfa. It was sad to see since just last June I photographed the storefront in all its glory.
I read your essay in the NYTimes yesterday …loved it… glad I found your Blog