Dust and Silence

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I spent a long weekend in Marfa, Texas. Marfa is a small and unique town way out in the high desert, near Big Bend National Park. Every time I travel out to far west Texas, it’s as if a very tightly wound metal cord slowly unravels from around my nervous system. It’s not just a release; it’s a very pronounced relief. Out in that country, you are truly far away from the stress of constant human noise. Even the most quiet moments in my apartment at home are overlaid with the far-off, low blare of hundreds of tires sailing along the highway, jets passing overhead, and the barking of neglected dogs. I’ve written about the effect of West Texas before, and the extent to which it feels like “home” to me somewhere in the spiritual marrow, but this past visit had us thinking more specifically: could this place actually BE home?
Really small towns can be tough to endure for long, after all. In far too many of them, culture comes to a standstill and it’s true what you hear: that there just isn’t a whole lot to do. I’m spoiled by my awesome Austin life, after all. I shouldn’t take for granted that I have a wide array of friends with different backgrounds and loads of great places to eat, hear music, and try new things. Whatever direction I want to go with whatever pursuit I have, there will be people and places here to help me do it. And yet…
A great part of me has longed for a simpler life. Years ago I felt it for the first time, when I returned to Ithaca, New York in 2005, four years after my graduation from college. Ithaca is remotely located, with plenty of places to sit and unplug from things entirely. After my divorce in 2008, I lived in a very small cottage by the ocean, where I scraped by in a corner of Highlands, New Jersey. When I think of that time, I don’t remember the hardship very well, but I do remember the sound of the ocean through my open window, and walking for coffee early on weekend mornings when most people were asleep. To walk back to our little rental house on the outskirts of Marfa, light a woodstove fire to keep the chill out, and feel the huge and silent desert all around without distraction…
There are so many distractions, after all. This culture is designed to churn them out by the hundreds. With the constant noise and diversions, it can be difficult to think very hard or for very long. In two days in Marfa, I did better thinking than I had in a long time. No driving in traffic, no waiting in lines, no stuffy apartment where you can’t even get a decent cross-breeze going, or open a window without being in on the business of the 100 other people within a two minute walk of your home.
Anybody would enjoy a break from it all, and that doesn’t mean one should go looking to move out into the high desert. Marfa itself is of course an exception to a lot of what’s not to like about small towns– it has an odd and thriving little culture. But could we reverse our lives? Make the wide open places the rule, and the bustling city the “break?” I could never just totally detach from culture like Austin’s. Are we “dust and silence” West Texas people at heart? Either way, I think it’s a good question to explore for anyone. I know that every time I feel that cord unwinding out in desert mountains, I’m aware of a lot that dictates the pace of my life back home that could use a more critical eye.

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