My husband and I discovered Oz off an empty west Texas highway in late 2007.
The desert town of Marfa, Texas, and its vicinity were like nothing I had ever seen. Heading west from our home in San Antonio, Interstate 10 abandons the city, skips across a few towns, and finally settles in for a few hours of uninterrupted scrub and dust.
In Marfa, the scenery is vaguely terrestrial, but the colors are a little off, the characters uncanny. Imagine any familiar landscape – shades of green, blue and brown – dotted densely or sparsely by manmade structures. Now scrape most of that clear, decapitate the slopes into clean, flat buttes, skew and dent the remaining signs of human inhabitants, and add a layer of bristle to the whole scene. Sift a thick skin of dust on top and turn up the sun’s intensity to account for the higher altitude. I felt like an unsuspecting Dorothy dropped in a new world. Nicholas and I landed there on our third anniversary, looking for seclusion.
When we married on Thanksgiving over a decade ago, I imagined the holiday would always be a time for us to get away together, using romance as an escape from choosing which family obligation to honor. I searched for a place within driving distance to spend our anniversary, and serendipity brought us to west Texas all those years ago.
“Nicholas, there is nothing here,” I said with disbelief. “There’s not even a Walgreens. What if I get a headache?”
Never mind a hospital emergency – my dusty bones would surely be found in an anguished pose on the desert floor. Nick consoled me with fairy tales of being airlifted to El Paso. We tucked in to our cottage for pitch dark nights, and during the day roamed the hills, wheezing like smokers in the thin air.
In this town, as close to nowhere as you could get while still maintaining your wits, was an excellent independent book store. As book store tourists (our family motto “As Many Books as You Want”), we felt an immediate connection to the odd little town.
We returned several Novembers in a row. Those first trips to Marfa were about the romance, getting away to a place where we had only each other and the ambient strangeness.
Nick took off on hikes while I fretted about asthma and stayed behind to take pictures of tiny cacti. He bemoaned the fact that some of his favorite obscure bands would bypass San Antonio to play in this hidden nook in the desert. Nick, not an artist but a metallurgist, spent an afternoon hypnotized by the steel box sculptures of artist Donald Judd.
We found the Marfa Lights, which in November can only be viewed in complete West Texas darkness while snug in your lover’s coat. We found odd points of culinary perfection, where a couple could get a world class dinner but feel like they were in an old friend’s kitchen. We found a hotel (the only one in town at the time) that was part Hollywood western museum, part unhomogenized mystery mansion.
In the early years, a happy marriage feels like a joining a secret club, a merciful rescue from desperate singledom. Like another secret club, absconding to Marfa hit the sweet spot of cool with a tinge of inaccessibility.
On later trips, the lure of romantic isolation was replaced by a deep aching homesickness. Our families grew to include nieces and nephews, and we were missing out on their holiday events. I squirreled around town looking for a cell signal strong enough to hear about my brother’s fried turkey or what the kids were willing/unwilling to eat this year. We had our magical escape to Oz, but we had to trade off the old traditions. I wondered more every year if it was the right choice.
Marfa tried to treat us like family.
“Did you read in the paper about tomorrow’s Thanksgiving lunch? Everyone is welcome, be sure to come by!” We were reminded at least a few times on every trip, but never stopped in to feast with the locals. Instead we cobbled together our own dinners and read in bed.
The welcoming and growing familiarity of the town was easy to mistake for the genuine familiarity of family at home. Like much of Marfa’s scenery, it is difficult to distinguish the organic from an aesthetic created by an artist in residence.
Little anomalies littered our visits to Marfa, throwing us off kilter. Like the time a pack of 8- to 10-year-olds cut through a gas station parking lot at dusk while we were fueling up the car.
“Hey, why is your side mirror broken?” one boy asked Nick.
“It just is,” he answered, and a chill ran through me. I’ve seen too many horror movies where the packs of odd children appear from no where.
There were more innocuous things, like the unreliability of the “OPEN” sign at the bookstore. It’s absence or presence seems unrelated to the store’s actual state of business. Even the roosters are nonconformists, crowing at 5:45 a.m., about an hour and a half before the sun rises.
Our most recent visit to Marfa in 2014 was pregnant with anticipation, heavy with the importance of marking our 10th wedding anniversary and our infant daughter’s first visit to our traditional Thanksgiving escape. That week I learned many lessons about letting expectations darken the lightness of contentment.
With a new addition to our travel party, we decided to rent a two-bedroom house instead of piling into a room at the Hotel Paisano. Most roads radiating from the town center are barely paved, and have names but no signs to identify them to outsiders. Luckily you don’t have to drive too far in any direction before you’ve seen every house in Marfa.
That trip, I was uneasy from the start and saw omens at every beat. The first night, there was a gas leak in the cottage. On the second day, we had a flat stroller tire. In need of a patch kit, Nick asked the guy behind the lunch counter where we might find one. In this town of funky artists, beacon to the hip, surely some place supplied bike accessories.
Counter guy answered, in the vaguely unimpressed tone of most locals, “There is a bike shop down the street. It may or may not be open, but there’s no sign.” The shop was, in fact, open, and we identified it by the rows of rental bikes out front.
The music in the bike shop was so loud the kid inside couldn’t hear me, but he let me get a few sentences out before he made a move to lower the volume. Again, the tone was not unfriendly, but mildly disinterested. No desire to be rude, just a veil to discourage further probing. It was a tone I would sense emanating from Marfa for the rest of the week.
Had we changed and Marfa was closing itself off from us? Or had the changes in me after a hard year of new motherhood made me feel like an outsider to things once cool and interesting?
On the night of our anniversary, with the baby in bed, Nicholas and I sat up late in the yellow cottage by the railroad tracks.
“Would you like to say anything to commemorate our 10th anniversary?” I asked Nicholas. I have a way of setting him up to fail at this game.
“This year has been hard,” he answered.
He didn’t say the only “right” answer, which is that he had grown happier each year. He wasn’t wrong, though. It was our first year as parents. I was all teeth and claws, fighting off postpartum anxiety and depression.
That night, I dragged us both through two hours of relationship analysis, heavy with fear that our auspicious trip reflected some brokenness in our marriage. If the decade’s marker was broken, so must be the thing it represented? The next day, sewage backed up in the bathtub, and we went home early. I didn’t know if we would return to Marfa or let it stand for a different phase in our life together.
I fought the strong urge to let mishaps and bad feelings take on more meaning than they should and eventually realized it was my own depression driving that train off the rails.
The next year we spent Thanksgiving in Connecticut with Nick’s parents, and completely forgot which day our anniversary passed. We were fully focused on fostering a connection between our child and her grandparents, and my pregnancy with a second child, too early to announce. I asked Nicholas whether this year was better than the last.
“Yeah, but last year wasn’t that bad either.”