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)