On West Texas, mixed feelings, and finding home


The backyard of an adobe house near Fort Davis.

When my friend Erin grows up and looks back on her childhood, I think she’ll think of summer. And when she thinks of summer, she’ll think of long road trips, peach ice cream, screened-in porches, iced tea, freezing cold spring fed-pools, and great starry expanses. For Erin, West Texas is a second home. Her parents are from that part of the world and they’ve been road tripping there every summer since before their children were even born. When she leaves home, she might get a little Texas tattoo on her ankle, so even if she’s not there, she knows where she’s from. For Erin, sometimes home is West Texas.

And me? I don’t quite know where home is. But like Erin, West Texas strikes a chord in my heart.

The first time I went there, I was eight. It was my first Thanksgiving after moving to Texas and we were staying at an obscure little motel on the edge of the Big Bend National Park. It was my first real taste of Texas and something about the landscape fascinated me. West Texas was foreign and exotic and completely unlike any place I’d ever seen. I didn’t trust the place, but I felt a sense of admiration for its stoic, rocky attitude. Now, eight years and several return trips later, it’s clear to me why I felt that way.

To me, West Texas is all the great inconsistencies and extremes of the world concentrated into one sweeping desert. It is clear blue skies, and sharp desert floors, glowing morning sun and shaking, loud thunder, icy cold rivers and prickly, dangerous cacti. Even with its cool mornings and huge range of colors, it’s too harsh of a landscape to feel like home.

I’ve been back and enjoyed myself many times now–Thanksgivings and summers spent riding bikes and cooking in old airstreams, hiking in Big Bend and eating milk wafers in Alpine, drinking coffee in the yards of various rental houses and watching the huge array of stars come out each night. This summer when I went back, though, I felt something more. I couldn’t exactly say why I felt it–maybe because I’m leaving home soon and I still can’t really tell you where home is, or maybe because the high altitude was getting to me. Either way, it started one morning in early August.

I was on a run on a ranch road in the Davis Mountains smack dab in the middle of West Texas. I was completely alone and it was so early that the whole desert was still dark, the air crisp and light, unlike the humid Austin fog. The only noise I could hear was my breath and the steady pound of my worn out New Balances on chipseal pavement. I continued up the road, came to the base of a hill and started up it, looking down at my shoes, breathing heavily.

As I cleared the top of the hill, I looked up to find that the sun had risen since I’d last glanced up from the pavement. All at once, it sat like a free range organic egg yolk plunked halfway across the Eastern edge of the universe. The sky was streaked light pink and blue around it, and two deer had stopped in their tracks and were staring at me. The whole world was frozen for one moment–the sky in between awake and asleep, the deer in between munching Buffalo grass and bounding away. And me–suddenly in between feeling at home and like a stranger in a foreign land.

Without warning, the deer blinked and sprung off into the underbrush on the side of the road. I, mirroring them, blinked and shook my head, shaking off the stillness of the moment.

Now the sun was up and everything was awake. The day had begun. I slowly began to make my way down the hill, my feet once again pounding, my breathing back up to speed. The yellow line down the center of the road looped on endlessly in front of me, the palisades continued up beside me, and the vast desert swept out all around me.

But this was West Texas, so prickly pear and spiky, injury-inducing sotol were looming around every corner, and the too-hot sun was about to be overhead, beating down on all the living things. But, for a moment, I had seen almost the same West Texas that Erin knows–the beguiling air, the quiet yet present land, the calm of being swallowed right into a place.

West Texas is not my home, I thought. But I’ll be back.