Day 61 – Texas

Everything is bigger in Texas.

Especially the egos.

I once heard a Texan claim that it was just as far from Dallas to El Paso as it is from Dallas to Chicago. He was a bit mistaken: Dallas to El Paso is the same distance as Dallas to St. Louis. The point, in either case, was to brag about how big the state of Texas is. Even though they are in the same state, it is a long way from Dallas to El Paso.

Of course, it is a long way from just about anywhere to El Paso. For some reason, I had always looked at El Paso as being somewhat akin to the edge of the Earth: go much farther, and you are in danger of falling off. Not literally, of course. But I always saw it as the end of the line. It seemed so far from anything, that I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to go there, or why the place even existed.

And it is not like it is a minor town. El Paso has over 580,000 residents, which means it is bigger than Oklahoma City. Bigger than Boston, technically. And just across the border is Ciudad Juarez, a city with well over a million people. Perhaps that is the key, isn’t it: El Paso is a suburb of Mexico.

As I drove through New Mexico and into Texas, I passed several old Toyota pickups that were pulling other old Toyota pickups. I had seen similar caravans multiple times in the Dallas area, though normally those consisted of minivans or SUVs pulling other minivans. I had been curious about the caravans, because I always saw them heading south—never north—and they always had license plates from northern states like Minnesota and North Dakota.

When I stopped for gas outside El Paso, 6 of the Toyota pickups also pulled over at the same station. I asked one of the Hispanic drivers where they were headed, and what the surplus vehicles were for. He said they were en route from Las Vegas to Guatemala.

“That’s a long drive,” I said. “Why do you have to go so far to get used pickups? Are they just that much cheaper farther north?”

He shrugged, perhaps because he was having a hard time understanding me. “Guatemala loves Toyotas.”

Prada is a high-end Italian fashion company.

I had to look that up; I don’t really know anything about Prada or fashion in general. Mostly, I blame this on my rural background. Where I grew up, the high-end fashion labels were Stetson and Lucchese (as in Stetson cowboy hats and Lucchese cowboy boots), and even then my family would normally settle for Resistol and Ariat. Italian fashion was the kind of thing we would point and laugh at when the TV would show a snippet of the fashion-show catwalk. Surely no one in the real world wear such outrageous-looking duds.

So, it was more than a little bit odd to come across a Prada store on the side of the highway in southwest Texas.

There are 14 Prada stores in the U.S., in cities like New York, Chicago, and Beverly Hills. And then there is one that is not in a city at all, but is located and along the side of the road 160 miles southeast of El Paso. The nearest town is Valentine, TX, population 186.

It is not truly a store, since you cannot buy any of the 20 shoes or 6 purses on display. A sign nearby declares the “Prada Marfa” to be “a site specific, permanent land art project”. The “sculpture”, as they call the building, is promised to “never function as a place of commerce; the door cannot be opened.”

Somehow, a shoe store in the middle of nowhere qualifies as art. The artistic value, I believe, stems from it being completely out of place. Valentine, after all, is very similar to where I grew up: a Stetson and Lucchese kind of place. Even if they did open up the store’s doors, no one living in the area would likely buy anything from it.

If being out of place is all it takes to qualify as art, am I perhaps my own traveling art show? If a 5th Avenue boutique in cowboy country is out of place, surely I was just as out of place when I parked and walked down 5th Avenue.

Or maybe the Marfa Prada is just weird. That would probably mean that I am also weird, but I’ve never argued against that claim.

It was February 11 when I went through Valentine, Texas. The town had seen better days. At least, I hope it had seen better days, because it was a pretty depressed place on February 11. There were about 4 businesses, 3 of which looked to be out of business. About a third of the houses were run-down, another third were abandoned, and the final third no longer existed.

The town did have a school, and the two water towers proclaimed the town mascot to be the Valentine Pirates. Somehow, the term “Valentine Pirates” made me happy.

The reason why the Prada artwork was labeled “Prada Marfa”, and not “Prada Valentine”, is because the artists responsible were from Marfa.

Marfa, Texas, has become some kind of an artist hotspot. I don’t know why the town of 2,000 in the remote Big Bend area would attract artists and art galleries. According to a local, it started with just one artist who moved there from New York City. He started an art foundation, which has helped lure other artists to the desert town.

Marfa was a nice, scenic little town. I wouldn’t blame any artists for living there. It also shuts down almost completely on Sundays, so I had to drive on to Alpine to find any place open for supper.

Alpine, Texas. That sounded familiar. I realized that was the hometown of Joel Nelson, the cowboy poet I had met in Elko, Nevada. That would make an interesting story if I ran into him there. Of course, I didn’t, so it did not make an interesting story.

Joel did tell me that I would like the high desert country around Alpine. I suppose I did like it, though I would have preferred it to be a little bit less desert. I did not get to see a whole lot of it before dark. It turns out the most famous sights in the area are nocturnal: the Marfa lights. The Marfa lights are ghostly glowing lights in the desert, of Unsolved Mysteries fame. I considered parking along the highway and spending the night watching for the lights. The weather was nice, after all, and I had planned to spend the night camping. It sounded like there was not a very good shot that I could see thing lights on any given night, though. Plus, I had spent the night before at a rest area. Though I was willing to sleep outside, I really wanted a campsite that included a shower.

I stopped at Penny’s Diner in Alpine, an old-fashioned neon-trim diner with very, very good food that is very, very bad for you. I chose the place not so much for the food as for the information. I quizzed the waitress about where the nearest campground would be. After a 30-minute process that included asking other customers and having her manager call listings in the phone book, I finally asked to see the yellow pages myself and quickly found the nearest KOA. It was 70 miles away, in Fort Stockton, but it was at least in the same direction I was heading.

The office was closed when I reached the campground, so I followed the instructions and deposited a payment envelope into the night box. I then struggled to put up a tent in what had become a very windy night.

After tracking down and recovering my tent bag from the sagebrush across the road, I headed to the bathroom facilities to for a pit stop. I was surprised when the urinal would not flush. I was alarmed when the sink faucet only produced a drip. It was then I discovered that the plumbing was down, and there was no running water in the campground. Forget a shower; I couldn’t even wash my hands.

Though cliché, it was now true: I was not a happy camper.

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