There’s a well-worn Texan route; a pilgrimage from hipsterville Austin to the far outpost made famous by minimalist artist Donald Judd, Marfa. Hard to credit that the bustling car park of south Austin’s Microtel is in the same country as Prada Marfa, let alone the same state. But Texas is b-i-g. So big, people rush across it in their trucks, breaking the pitifully low speed limits and playing into the hands of state troopers who set speed traps and lurk behind bushes. Speeding tickets are a big revenue generator for small Texas towns – Selma, whose keen as mustard traffic cops raised $10,352,606 for the town’s 4600 inhabitants between 2000-2008 is one of the most notorious, but we have a list of them (although I’ve lost it) and we’re driving west through Texas on Thanksgiving Day.
We’ve only gone a few miles down I-10 before Dave goes funny. It’s Dripping Springs, home to Lance Armstrong, and he starts scanning the pizza places and Mexican restaurant (closed) and parks (empty) just in case he gets a chance to lower the window and shake his fist. “Thanks a lot” he mutters as we leave it all behind, “Thanks for ruining cycling and making your team mates take drugs that cause cancer you tosser . . . “. We put the radio on for a bit.
When US cities have a quirk or a theme they embrace it. There aren’t many of German extraction or descent living in Fredericksburg, but in this little corner of Texas it is forever Deutschland: willkommen to the Marketplatz! And despite being November and 70 something degrees fahrenheit (we’ve forgotten the old ways and this measure means nothing), for the few minutes we crawl through it, it’s gingerbread Christmas. It’s like Fredericksburg makes it okay to be Christmas because from here on west it’s all Santas and snow in the shimmery heat. Which is just plain weird.
There are vineyards here that look like ranches with massive gates and (lone) stars and American flags, and dry peach and pecan orchards, but also cowboy towns, with cowboys on bucking horses whipping lassoes on the signs for shops, bars and churches. Wild Ride Ministries which I later learn started out as an outreach program by a pastor who tended to the spiritual needs of rodeo riders and ropers, solidified into a bonafide church with land in Harper, and has what is officially the best church sign in the world.
What there aren’t, are many snack snuffling stops because everything’s shut, but next to a barn selling deer attractant there’s a store with a swinging sign ‘hunters welcome’ and a row of long-haired cowboys leaning against the wall in camouflage gear, smoking and squinting into the sun; dogs tacking in the trucks. (“Ask them if they’ve got brioche” I say.)
You basically spend all day on the I-10 getting from Austin to Marfa and you go through, oh, about five towns. The fripperies and nicknack shops drop off the further west you go until for about 6 hours it’s a load of nothing and not even many cactus and absolutely none of those ones that wear sombreros. It’s at this point 80 miles from the next dot on the map that Dave clears his throat as asks whether I think there might be a gas station. This is very annoying as he does have a petrol gauge and I do not have a crystal ball. Anyway I could see for about 10 miles in all directions and there wasn’t, but there was cluster of houses, Sheffield, showing up on the SatNav about 15 miles down a bumpy road to the south. There were three people hanging out in a garden, drinking beer, their kids riding unicycles through the tumbleweed up and down the empty street; the place was otherwise abandoned “What are y’all doing all the way out here” said the man. Turns out they didn’t have any gas either, but he gave us what he had, enough, he said, to get us to I-raan, meaning Iraan, Texas.
Strange, but once you’re so far into the empty plains you’ve forgotten to expect buildings and people, you get your eye in, and the landscape fills up with tones and shadows, mounds and boulders; things that aren’t exactly alive although I did see a haunch and tail of a coyote trotting into a thicket. And the huge, ever-changing luminous sky provides the drama.