November 10 – Sherman, TX
We’ve crossed over the fold in the map between East and West Texas and it’s always a bittersweet time. Yes, we’re heading home to friends and family, but we’re leaving the desert behind. When we got out of the Tundra in Sherman today the humidity, though low by Arkansas standards, felt soupy. Only yesterday we were hiking in the prickly pear and sotol in the red rock of Caprock Canyon State Park on our last night on the west side of the map. When you drive east on Texas Rt. 70 you literally drop off the world near Silverton. The 4,000 ft. plateau of the Panhandle tumbles into the erosion of red rock that forms miniature versions of the Grand Canyon for miles.
We’d just finished four straight days of doing Orphan Train performances in the Panhandle at Shamrock, Lipscomb and Friona. Two museums and one Route 66 restored relic, respectively. Shamrock is a town that has seen better days, a remnant of the oil boom. Amid tumbledown houses and boarded up storefronts, the spectral tower of the U-Drop-Inn rises above the riffraff. The Chamber of Commerce took up offices here and the former café is spliced with shafts of sunlight and the easily-imagined echoes of conversations of travelers hunched over coffee at the counter. Those going east probably told the west-bounders about dust storms ahead and those heading west probably thought they were heading into the dark edge of the end of the world. But this is 2006 and the people who came to hear us were Friends of the Library and a couple, the Degers, who brought photos of their cousins who rode the orphan trains. Stanley and Victor Cornell got off the train 20 miles south of Shamrock in Wellington. 6 year old Stanley wouldn’t let go of Victor’s hand, so the farmer that had come to town for supplies that day, knowing nothing about orphan trains, ended up taking them both home. He hid them under blankets while he tried to think of what to tell his wife when he got home. He sent his daughters to the wagon and they discovered the boys and made them welcome before anyone could change their minds.
This kind of story comes our way surprisingly often; siblings or relatives of orphan train riders see the notice of our presentation and are eager to share their little piece of history. As a consequence, we get to add this story to our program and take it on down the line. Our audiences in Lipscomb and Friona were thrilled to have a “local” story, a pin on the map, so to speak, of the fast territory of the placing out system.
The tiny town of Lipscomb showed up, packing the Wolf Creek Heritage Museum. People came from Perryton and as far away as Amarillo but before they got there I had a chance to comb through some of the museum’s Dust Bowl collection: photos by Dorothea Lange, among others. In this neck of the woods, they refer to it as The Dirty 30’s. One look at the pictures and you can see why. Since reading “The Last Worst Time” on this trip, Phil and I have decided that our next multi-media performance will be on the Dust Bowl and we can’t wait to start doing some research, returning to the Panhandle with notebooks and taperecorders. The museum will set up interviews for us with people Who Were There.
In Friona, another small Panhandle town, we did four performances in three days and by the time we were ready to leave, people were waving to us in restaurants. We visited with Lee Gibson who runs the local barbershop. He sat in one of his own antique chairs and told some tales about dust storms, tornados, floods—Friona’s had them all. He started shining shoes in the barber shop when he was 9, then graduated to cutting hair by age 16. He’s now 77 or thereabouts and has heard just about everything, I imagine. I didn’t really know what to expect in the Panhandle—it’s never been a destination before—but I’d gladly come back.
So, if you see a green Tundra towing a silver trailer that looks like it’s just coming in from a deer camp tomorrow, that’s us, clocking in at 8,400 miles, give or take a few
P.S. - I forgot to mention that the black and white puppy in the top photo, Lucky, Doug’s puppy, had an adventure that topped Maggie’s. On the day before we left Terlingua, Lucky disappeared. At 3 months, she didn’t stand a chance and we all figured she’d been snapped up by something. We looked everywhere. Twenty-eight hours later she reappeared. Phil and I were in the Panhandle by then and Doug called us to say she showed up with five broken ribs and puncture marks around her neck. The vet said it was definitely a mountain lion. How she survived is a miracle. I’m just glad I’m able to report her return here rather than giving her epitaph…
What seemed like infinite time when we first arrived here has diminished to a mere 24 hours. A lot of time is spent packing, which is an ordeal. Having three trailers with things in all three that need to be in one for the trip home there's a lot of schlepping. I took two showers already today after cleaning the Scout. It's dusted with Chinati still. The dirt road one drives to get there managed to funnel itself into the trailer so I've been shoveling it out.
To catch up, Chinati was rejuvenating. Vivifying. We lounged, we soaked, we talked, we sang and even went exploring beyond Candelaria, which is the end of all roads in Texas. Just look at a map. Hwy 170 west of Presidio comes to a grinding halt in, yes, the middle of elsewhere. Of course there's a dirt road that continues for those of us with high clearance vehicles that can gallop through running rivers and over strewn rocks the size of pumpkins. We bow to the Tundra daily. Anyway, our wanderings led us to some of the most breathtaking and unvisited part of Texas we've ever been in. Red rock and limestone, semi-wild horses roaming over the sandy hills. And running water to boot! We crossed the creek at least four times, yee-haaing all the way.
Back at camp we've been puttering around again. Phil has added to his desert portal by adding bones and now it looks like some kind of Terlingua Voodoo standing in the bare bentonite plains. I'll have to upload a picture soon in case you can't take my word for it.
I decided to enter a fiction and poetry contest on the last day of the postmark date for each. Not only did I essentially write the story, or at least re-write half of an unpublished story I'd forgotten I'd written, but ran out of laptop battery at camp just as I was completing the last sentence. But of course, what got saved to disk wasn't yet edited, so I raced into town to go to the coffee shop that opens at three and began fine tuning, trying to keep in mind that the post office closes at 4:30. Now, I did manage to get it edited, but couldn't find anywhere to print it out. The library's computers were down. The bank wouldn't let me on their computer. Finally I found the Rancho Fandango Liquor Store had a computer with a printer, so I emailed the files to myself as attachments then printed them out. We're talking 4:16 p.m. at this time. The first file printed out fine as I stood there panting at the cash register. I asked the woman there where the second file was. She went into the back (where they must keep their printer in a deep freeze or something) and she came back and said, "Oh, my. It's run out of paper!" I had to restrain myself from jumping across the counter and strangling her. We're talking 4:22 now. She adds more paper, prints it out but comes back with a page missing. My blood pressure is rising. I've got one foot out the door and literally ran to the truck, Phil driving like it was a getaway vehicle. 4:26. We pull into the post office at 4:29, I kid you not, and they were just closing. I begged Lisa, the postmistress here. She was in Halloween costume and looked ready to close up and go party. I begged. I groveled. She took pity on me and together we put the packets together. I sealed up the first one but forgot to put the entry fee in so had to tear it open. I'm doing all this with a palpable adrenaline shake. She says, "It's OK. Take your time." Then the pen I addressed the envelopes with bled and she put big pieces of tape over the address so it wouldn't run any more. I said, "It has to be postmarked today, are you sure it's postmarked with today's date?" She looked at me compassionately and held up the envelope. She'd stamped the date five times. 4:35. We made it. I walked out of the post office absolutely exhausted and giddy. Nothing is easy here, but people really help when you need it.
The Chili Heads are rolling into town in their big motorhomes towing smokers for the annual Terlingua Chili Cook Off. Between now and tomorrow night, 10,000 people will show up here. We're getting out of Dodge just in time, but there's an overlap this year with Day of the Dead and the first night of the cookoff. So, we're compromising, acquiescing to be judges for the Stupid Hat contest at our friends' booth. Tony and Casey from Luchenbach kick off the first day with a contest, so we're stepping up to the plate. After that, we'll book on over to the cemetery for the annual cleaning of the graves and lighting a candle on each. Some are no more than a mere rock, literally, with no name. When several hundred graves flicker in unison, the whole town will eat together right there in the cemetery, then build a bonfire and sing. We went last year and it was the highlight of the whole trip down here. Not sure whether the craziness of the chili cookoff - the karoke and generators running will carry up the hill to the cemetery. We'll leave right after the bonfire and head to Marathon for the night, drive through Big Bend National Park by moonlight. We've got to make 400 miles Friday, so getting 80 out of the way tomorrow night will help.
I'm soaking up the last of the perfect 75 degree weather, the unobstructed view of the stars, the coyote chorus at sundown. It'll be strange to be back in the woods a week from now. At least the leaves are off the trees and can let a few stars in...
October 21, 2006
I've been on Terlingua time since the last entry. Living by the sun and moon, off the grid at Gate 1 ½. Two friends from Tucson, Mike Fitzmorris and Al Bellavia were the first takers on our offer of coming to the Big Bend. Each person had their own trailer - now how's that for hospitality? They were both impressed with the area, and that's something from two people who live in the Sonoran desert. Trailer Camp took on a new look and feel - lots of conversation over morning coffee and campfires. Laundry hanging on the line. But no extra vehicles. Both Al and Mike had their transport in the "shop" which is one of the criteria of being a Terlinguan: you have to break down here and be waiting days or weeks for parts. You also have to be towed and drive off from the Study Butte gas station with the hose still in the tank. We've done all three but our friends were initiated with the mechanical difficulties which forced them to stay longer.
Not a bad deal, all in all. Mike got his motorcycle fixed and took off leaving Al with a master brake cylinder awaiting parts, so we went hiking at Closed Canyon in the State Park, a steep slot canyon we've always wanted to hike through. Probably eight feet wide and a hundred high, we descended through many "rooms" in the dry streambed, winding our way down to the Rio Grande at the end. We never made it all the way because we finally ran into a deep pool of water blocking any but the intrepid swimmer. Our "landlord" Doug Scharnberg, desert survivalist has, of course, made it all the way. He says there are at least ten more pools beyond the one we got to and the last one you have to not only swing yourself down with a rope, but then on the return trip you have to somehow become airborne in that deep pool to reach up and grab the rope, then turn yourself upside down to shimmy up the rope to climb out. Doug did all this naked. Needless to say, he survived to tell the tale.
Al's last night we went to the Family Crisis Center for a dinner and shared stories, songs, poems. October was "Family Violence Month" thankfully with the theme "Peace Begins at Home." We ate enchiladas as the sun went down and played music with Collie Ryan and Bryn Moore. At the end I recited the "Liberty" poem which everyone really seemed to appreciate. Afterwards, we headed to Lajitas where Doug works so he could serenade us on the patio. It felt strange to segue from the Family Crisis Center to a 95 million dollar resort but there was no black tie required, of course, and Phil got in just fine with his skeleton T-shirt. Actually, we had the place to ourselves; evidently, millionaires go to bed early, so Doug sat at our table and played "Busted in a Border Town" by Gil Prather followed by some old standards and a ballad by Brian Wilson. The warm breeze ruffled our hair, the fountain flowed. Doug's voice filled the patio collonade. If you could forget it was a resort that claimed to be "the ultimate hideaway" we might have been in Mexico a hundred years ago with Pancho Villa listening in the shadows.
Trailer Camp seemed so quiet after Al left. We puttered around, took some drives into remote parts of Terlingua Ranch along South County Road and Lake Ament to the north. The Tundra straddled those big rocks and boldly went forth where the Blazer never dared to go. Every time we come down here we discover something new and this time, the Christmas Mountain Sanctuary was a show stopper. We climbed a mountain strewn with red boulders and from the highest vantage point everything west became panorama: the Solitario (an enormous volcanic rim), Hen Egg Mountain, Sawmill Mountain - a blue sea of mountains in shadow as the sun sank into them.
At the moment, I'm writing this from Alpine, which feels like a metropolis. We're here to get back into the book tour for the weekend. Did a radio interview on Marfa Public Radio yesterday talking about the Orphan Trains, Terlingua and The Middle of Elsewhere with a few songs thrown in. Last night we played just music at La Trattoria, a local coffeehouse restaurant and sold two books because I thought to put postcards of the book on all the tables. This afternoon we go back to Marfa to do a reading at Marfa Book Co. and go to a play called "Start Your War." We'll drive back to Terlingua to play at the Starlight for Sunday brunch then hightail it to Chinati Hot Springs for several days of soaking in lithium-laced water and REALLY relax before coming back to Terlingua for a reading at Terlingua Springs Coffeehouse. Then it's the home stretch to Day of the Dead on November 2, our last night. That'll be my next entry.
10/7/06 Marfa, TX
Between the last entry and now there's been one major event that took up all emotional, mental and physical energy. We lost Maggie in the desert at our camp in Terlingua. Don't worry, there's a happy ending, but for 24 hours she was gone and I didn't know if she was still among the living. Phil and I went to town for the afternoon leaving her with Doug's dogs at camp. She's always been content to stay put until we return, but a storm blew up out of nowhere and the thunder sent her running. She panics in a storm and has the habit of heading out in a straight line and then can't find her way home. This has happened four other times in different states and someone has always found her and called my number etched on her collar. This time she was out in the middle of elsewhere, literally, and we drove for hours, calling, finally giving up at midnight to get some rest. I woke all night long, each time with the "Oh, no!" thought as I remembered she was gone.
We had lit a candle, set a dog milagro next to it and hoped she would be there when we woke. Dawn came gray and forlorn. I went into town and posted notices on various bulletin boards, trying to keep out the thoughts of buzzards circling. She's old, nearly 14 and doesn't see or hear very well. And the desert is full of predators: coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, all nocturnal. By mid afternoon, I simply set out on foot, hiking to a cave I knew about. Nada. When I got back to camp we decided to drive around some more and I suggested taking the Dark Canyon Rd. which we hadn't done before because Phil doubted she'd be out there. But I knew she knew that area from our hikes to the tinaja (collected water in a rock pool). We put the Tundra in 4WD and set out, crossed two rocky washes and as we came up out of one and rounded a hill, there she was, emerging dripping from a pool of water, running to the road to meet us.
I don't know how she survived the night. If dogs have angels, she's got a fleet. Her presence now seems a miracle and I celebrate her daily.
Right now she's with us in Marfa. We're here for the Chinati Open House weekend and we're performing tonight at the old fort next to the Chinati Foundation after a reception for some artists from Austin. Right now the town is mostly empty, but in a few hours the hordes will arrive from New York, Berlin, LA in various shades of black with exotic eyewear. We had planned to do another impromptu installation after last year's "Terlinguasaurus Rex" but it fell through this morning. Before Phil and I left to come here we were hot on the trail of a new idea: we'd put our bed in a scavenged flat bed trailer in order to sleep outside under the moon and stars. From there, the idea of a piece called "The Day of the Bed" arose, with bones and sticks and feathers and hanging oil lanterns that we were going to tow behind the Tundra through the streets of Marfa. Phil actually went all the way back to Terlingua at 4 a.m. to get it and haul it up here - a deep commitment of 200 miles RT. About 20 miles out, the tire on the trailer flew apart from all its years sitting in the heat. So. We have only the idea and the mattress now and the various bones all in a heap at our camp here. The trailer is by the road about 20 miles north of Terlingua.
Rebecca Bryant is here with us from Fayetteville. Nice to have some female energy. We all slept in the scout as it rocked from high wind like a ship at sea.
We rolled into the ghost town late yesterday afternoon, still exhilarated from a great turnout in Alpine at Front St. Books. We did a "split" program, part Orphan Train, part Truth or Terlingua, following pathos with a little humor. One man named Phil from Ft. Davis who heard our Orphan Train program in the library there over a year ago made the 30 mile trip to hear us again.
Arrival in Terlingua felt like a homecoming. So many people here know us now since we've been coming at least twice a year for the last four years. Several people said, "Welcome home!" The real surprise was that we were just in time for Butch Hancock's CD Release Party at the Starlight later that evening. We've gotten to know him a bit from coming down here, but really connected this summer at Woody Fest. Last night he recognized us and talked quite a bit about trailers (he has an Airstream collection) and Woody Fest which he says "is like a folk festival ought to be." I traded him a book for a CD and we made plans to get together when he comes back at the end of the month. His new CD, "Peace and War" is all political. No holds barred. He said he's been trying to produce this CD for years; I told him it was right on time.
The air is heavy here with potential rain. The ocotillo are still leafed out from heavy rains earlier in the month leaving everything here what the natives call "blindingly green." They'd have to wear sunglasses in Arkansas.
Now that we're here we can finally relax. We've gone 3700 miles since we started and now when we drive the Tundra without a trailer it feels like we're flying. We'll be star gazing and campfire singing for most of the month except for some forays to Marfa. Stay tuned...;
9/28/06 Marathon, TX
We made it. Finally crossed the crease in the map of Texas and got to the Western side. When we pulled into Marathon Motel and RV Park we felt we'd arrived home. This is the first place we stayed in the Big Bend area when we came in 2003. We are parked next to kindred spirits, trailerites: a couple from Georgia with a diminuitive little aluminum trailer. We gave each other tours and they oohed and aahed over ours because ours is curved as has original birchwood. All along the road on this trip we've had people, mostly at gas stations, come to look and talk. We're a curiosity: great big shiny Tundra truck and a somewhat oxidized silver relic rolling behind. When we get it buffed it'll look like a toaster again.
We celebrated getting here by going to the Gage Hotel and having chicken fried venison and jalapeno cornbread. We wanted to sit on the patio but they'd just shellacked the flagstone, so we sat inside and wondered what happened to our friends in town: Neil and Mary, it turned out, when I called them to join us for drinks, were in Argentina. Neil's cellphone actually rang! Danielle is in Minneapolis and Nancy Lee has moved from the coffee shop gig to the Cottonwood.
When we returned to the RV park and illuminated our little camp with headlights we remarked to each other that it certainly looked like a redneck camp. We're next to a huge motorhome and there we are with laundry draped over folding chairs, various plastic bags full of things including one with deer bones and a leg sticking out. (Phil's gathering roadside skeletons for our next Chinati sculpture - stayed tuned). Overturned dog dishes, everything but white tires with petunias.
Tonight we're doing our Orphan Train program as part of the book tour at Front Street Books in Alpine, then heading down to Terlingua tomorrow. Off the grid again. 12V lights, taking a shovel to dig a shit hole, literally. Ah, but the stars...;
9/24/06 Abilene, TX
Well, I have to recant my need for prayer. Actually,
Abilene isn't a bad place at all, and the women definitely
don't treat you mean. The opening night reception of the
Texas Book and Music Festival took place in the old
Paramount Theatre downtown, a venerable
palace replete with Moorish paraphernalia and stars
and clouds on the ceiling. We parked in the loading
zone outside, having just blown into town, did a quick
change in the trailer and appeared refreshed and famished,
scooping up the last of the hors d'ouerves before settling in
for an evening of music which ranged from the
mighty-windish to the pretty good to downright
listenable. The book fair itself was replete with live
goats in the children's section and we heard them in their pen
in the parking lot bleating plaintively. The big hit at our
booth was the little skeletons and wire scorpions we
normally have on our dashboard. Sold two books, 3 cds.
We talked an owner of a local coffee house into
letting us play and we sold as many books and cds as
we did at the book fair. Regrettably, we're in a KOA
(the only game in town). Last night a biker dude died
in his trailer and all morning we've had police,
coroners. Never a dull moment in Abilene...
Today we played some Senior Citizen assisted living places. Lots of requests for gospel, of which we know almost nothing. Faked our way through "Amazing Grace" and "Standing on the Promises of God." Finally ended with "Good Night Irene."
We're REALLY looking forward to Far West Texas: Alpine on Thursday, Terlingua as soon after that as we can get there...;
9/20/06 Taos, NM
We're actually in Truchas at the moment staying with Eric and Peggy Luplow at El Gallery during the High Road Art Tour. Yesterday we dragged our instruments outside the Moby Dick Bookstore in Taos and set up my little suitcase of books. A group of Norwegian tourists came by, bought books and a CD and took our pictures repeatedly. Today we'll do a repeat performance in Santa Fe Plaza, leaning on bluegrass which always seems to attract attention, especially in the Land of Enchantment.
We froze out butts off in Denver two days ago. 30 degrees and high winds, snow up in the 14-ers. We arrived at the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Convention late for the trade show but just in time for great finger food and respectable wine at the Author's Reception. It was the cattle call - about thirty authors sitting behind stacks of their books at tables, getting carpal tunnel signing their books away. We found our "sponsor" Bruce Roberts from Suib Associates and got introduced to various people including Tattered Cover powers that be. Hopefully, we'll be back in the summer to do a reading there.
We also got permission from the convention people to make some noise the next morning and set up with banjo, guitar and books in the corridor leading to the exhibit hall, catching people stumbling from breakfast to take one last book look. They seemed shocked (and pleased) to see people (especially an author) making music at a literary event. On the grass roots level, this is how we'll be remembered and, by association, so will the book.
Onward through the Southwest, wending our way toward Abilene for the West Texas Book Fest on 9/22.
Who in their right mind would begin a book tour at the same time that they're moving? Not just any old move, but from a 1500 sq. ft. "normal" house with modern amenities into a 50 ft. vintage trailer, as yet unfinished. Years of living with lots of closet space, an outbuilding and a basement kept us packing for two weeks and at the end, friends rolled up their sleeves and rescued us from certain insanity. Special thanks to songwriter Louise Taylor, the voice of reason in the midst of chaos, and Pati who cleaned the Mobile Scout for its voyage. We rented a storage unit for three months, heaving everything in there and hit the road at 11:00 p.m., covering the astonishing distance of 127 miles before we collapsed just west of Tulsa. The Mobile Scout we're towing, also "packed" at the last minute, was too crowded to climb into so we stayed in a motel and left Maggie the Author's Dog to sleep in the trailer and guard our worldly possessions. At least that's what she said she did. Maybe she sold books on the side while we slept.
The Buy My Book Book Tour is off and running after a slow start in Blytheville. The day before we moved we drove six hours across Arkansas for an audience of three. But That Bookstore in Blytheville is a treasure and Mary Gay Shipley a seasoned veteran of hosting itinerant authors. It was parent-teacher night in Blytheville so only the childless attended our presentation of Riders on the Orphan Train. The next morning we drove six hours back to Fayetteville to set up for the Nightbird Books event at La Maison de Tartes. What a contrast. At least fifty people showed up including my first mentor at Warren Wilson, Mary Elsie Robertson who had just moved to Winslow (the setting of the story I was about to read). I'd lost touch with her over the years, and her presence there seemed a sanction of sorts. Everyone sipped wine, grazed on gourmet odds and ends and sat, seemingly on the edge of their seats (from where I stood) for the reading of "Miniature Graceland" with music. We played "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Elvis Presley Blues." Then they stood and applauded and wouldn't stop and I finally had to jump up and down, both in delight and astonishment.