West Texas Mountains
It was almost funny, really. Here we were at a Border Patrol checkpoint all the way out in Terlingua, Texas, our car stuffed with our bags. Evening was closing in, and we were trying to explain that we were just two road-weary travelers who were making our way for the full 8 hours back to Austin that very night. No, we hadn’t been over the border today. Yes, we live in Austin, even though the car has Kansas plates, doesn’t belong to either one of us (it’s her mom’s, you see), and I’m showing you an Oklahoma license.
Sir, please step out of the car…
It wasn’t the best of circumstances in which to be, that was for sure. But as I quietly endured my pat-down with the nearby drug dog, I noticed something. The sun was going down on the mountains of West Texas, and every passing minute changed the look of the land. Harsh, sun-bleached yellow-whites and baked browns on the distant rocks faded into mild and then more deep reds, rusts, and shadowy grays and blacks. Gnarled, harsh-looking trees and patches of scrub assumed a deeper, darker green. While our trunk was opened and our bags sniffed, the February air went from mild coolness to a crisp, clean chill. The peaks became starkly-lined black points in twilight, and the sky swirled with purple, pink, wild orange, and strange clouds. It was profoundly quiet in a way that enhanced how haunting and surreal the landscape was, and I knew at once that West Texas was every bit as beautiful as I had expected it to be, and probably something more.
For so many years, I had been a very northeastern boy. I still am in some ways. Autumn among the tall trees and colors of upstate New York is something I miss often. Listening to the sound of the ocean by an open window in a New Jersey cottage is an experience I think of when Texas is its fully parched and unbearably hot self. There are Christmas-time afternoons here in Austin when I look around at the unchanged hill country, breathe in air that’s 75 degrees, and wish I could have the real thing, just for a little bit: walking in snow, waking up to Jack frost, smelling wood-fires from chimneys, and drinking something hot to joyfully beat the chill.
Sometimes trades are necessary, I guess. I grew up in New Jersey, and it took me a long time to notice the other things: the tightly-packed people, the utterly conquered and paved land, the trash everywhere, and the omnipresent human noise of engines, tire rubber echoing on highways, planes, and machines of people rushing around. I’m a pretty highly-strung person, after all. I talk a lot, I throw myself into things, and I seek to get from Point A to Point B. New Jersey never felt truly uncomfortable for someone like me. West Texas was a shock at first. The miles and miles of vast, still countryside imposes itself on me and shuts me up. To step out of a car and hear nothing but the lowest of breezes and to look in one direction and realize that you could walk continuously and not see another human being for who knows how long… To look at those mountains and see almost exactly what you would have seen if you had stood there 10,000 years ago, 100,000 years ago, or even not long after the violent collision of plates had formed them in ancient pre-history– to a feel a very small part of a very big and very old world– West Texas makes it sink into your spiritual marrow.
I could observe it from a front porch every day and count myself lucky. I have been back since to wander around, hunker down with friends and good whiskey, and think quietly to the sound of gamboling horses by sunrise. It’s extraordinary. To call a place “home” for me is tough because that means lots of things. It must mean family, friends, community and culture with which I can feel connected. I hold my wife in my arms and know that ‘home’ is in that feeling more than anything. But there is a part of ‘home’ for me that West Texas hits right on the nerve. It’s an older, “in the bones” feeling, and it’s funny to know that I could have gone my whole life without having ever been the wiser. Not even a Border Patrol shakedown could dilute the effect.