I just attended my fourth writer’s retreat in Alpine, Texas. I can’t tell you how much good this does for the people who attend. We spend five days living, eating, and breathing writing. I come back feeling re-energized and ready to write.
Far West Texas is my favorite place to be in the hottest part of the summer. It’s always 10 to 12 degrees cooler than here, and it gets downright nippy at night. I get a week in my favorite place, doing my favorite thing, taught by some of the best writers around, and comparing notes with like-minded people. Heaven.
My teacher this year, Mike Hall, an editor at Texas Monthly, is a really nice guy. He was approachable and genuinely interested in helping us take the next step. I got my ego stroked and my confidence built, so much so I’m determined to finish the book I’ve been working on forever. The whole project is a lot clearer than it’s ever been, so maybe 2015 will be my year.
A big part of the fun on these trips is playing tourist with my husband. Bryan and I visited Marathon, Marfa, and Alpine. We’ve been to each one before, but there’s always something new to see. That’s something people don’t expect from tiny towns sitting in the desert.
Marfa has really grown and has turned into a clean, pretty little town. In addition to becoming quite the art colony and providing Marfa Radio which saves tourists suffering NPR withdrawal, it has two traditional claims to fame: the Presidio County Courthouse, which is one of the prettier members of the Tacky Texas Courthouse Club, and the Paisano Hotel, where the cast of Giant stayed while filming the movie in the mid-1950s. A young friend of mine announced she has never seen Giant but planned to rent it after hearing about it in Marfa.
“Or you can read the book,” I suggested.
“There’s a book?” she asked wide-eyed.
The exchange made me feel old, but I smiled picturing Edna Ferber watching us, thoroughly disgusted.
Next Bryan and I headed for Marathon, pronounced MAR-a-thun. You swallow the last syllable. The one visible place to eat turned out to be a highpoint of the trip. Just the other side of the historic Gage Hotel sat the tiny Marathon Café.
We complimented our waitress, who turned out to be one of the three owners, and the floodgates opened. The residents of Far West Texas have learned to be polite to the tourists but not to get too friendly. We are different; we are The Others. And they never know exactly how we’ll react to open friendliness. I always try to get people to talk to me. It’s half the fun of traveling out there.
We found out the café was owned by three cousins, all older ladies with painful arthritic joints. As is normal there, none of them plan to retire anytime soon. Hard work is ingrained in them from childhood. You work until you get too ill or too dead to continue. A niece did the cooking. She had trained at the Gage Hotel and brought her considerable talents to the tiny family concern. Bryan said his chicken fried steak was excellent, served interestingly on top of the cream gravy. My hamburger quite simply was the best I’ve had in years, and she seemed surprised when I told her so. We will definitely go there again next year.
Sometimes we revisit favorite places, only to find them closed up or reincarnated as something else. Businesses come and go out there with the suddenness of death in the desert. Apparently you’ve got a window to make it or else. There’s always a little feeling of relief when we arrive and find a favorite haunt still standing and still in business.
Our last stop was Alpine. I had just spent a week there and had seen everything in town three times. But we discovered the Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross University campus last year and decided to go back. For one thing, they have a great gift shop, and I always stock up on memorabilia there. The displays don’t change drastically, but one of the blessings of advancing age is short-term memory loss. I see places for the first time over and over.
One of my favorite exhibits is a large topographical representation of the entire area. Plates on each side list points of interest and landmarks. Push the large, red button next to the plate, and a tiny light goes on at the appropriate place on the map. In the vastness of the place it’s easy to get turned around, and I enjoy lighting up the places we’ve just seen.
I like the stuffed black bear, whose relatives are repopulating the area. I also like the life-size replica of a pterosaur, which won’t be back anytime soon, hanging from the ceiling. Between dinosaurs, and later on Comanches and Apaches that gave the settlers many a bad day, Far West Texas has always been a pretty busy place. I prefer the toned-down version of today.
Every time we visit, Bryan and I try to figure out a way to move out there, and every year we realize we can’t. There are down sides to living in such a remote place: medical care is sketchy and usually far away; there is no quick way to get out there or back here from out there; and I’d have to hold auditions to find people to talk to about politics. With kids and grandkids in Central Texas, there’s a lot to stay for.
Still, I think we both started thinking about our next trip out there as we unloaded the car from this one. Far West Texas calls to both of us. As a friend, Joe Nick Patoski, said, “You either get this place or you don’t.” Bryan and I get it.