15 February 2010

Wealth in Sparseness - West Texas

After spending ten days this past December in the Far West Texas region of Big Bend, without the internet, sleeping most nights in a dusty school bus with a pot-bellied wood stove as the only source of heat, attending an acoustic concert in an abandoned cinnabar mine, drinking my morning coffee as I wandered through a zoo of cactus and creosote, or discovered arrowheads along the Rio Grande, and having limited access to running water, electricity, and cell phone, I fell in love with life – a simple kind of life. This Valentine’s Day, I want to celebrate my love for the desert and the love it breeds.

The Big Bend region of Texas consists of the expansive Big Bend National Park – one of the largest in the country – and a few small towns: Terlingua, Study Butte, and Lajitas. Including the entire area of Brewster County, with the cities of Alpine and Marathon about an hour away north of Big Bend, the area is just over 6,000 square miles with a little over 9,000 people – that’s about one and a half persons per square mile. And about 5,000 of those people live in Alpine, so the further you get into the Big Bend area towards the U.S.-Mexico border, the more remote it gets.

With such a sparse population, I had imagined that people living there were only interested in solitude and had moved out there to entirely get away from all people. But as I found out, they moved out there to get away from most people, and what you’re left with in the desert is a small number of people who do, indeed, crave isolation. But as much as they celebrate their seclusion, they also celebrate a real sense of community.

Living such long distances from their neighbors and friends – when they get together, it’s a meaningful occasion. There are campfires instead of televisions, there is music playing instead of video game playing, and as one of my new Big Bend friends put it, “when you get sick out here, people check in on you and bring you soup” because they know you can’t just run down to the corner pharmacy.

I just can’t get Big Bend out of my head – it gives me the kind of lovesick feeling I’d get when I was a teenager and couldn’t stop thinking about a particular boy. I’ve been on the internet and at the library, researching the history of Big Bend, looking up photographs, trying to picture myself old and white haired living on a giant plot of land with a greenhouse to grow my vegetables, goats and cows for milk and meat, and an off-grid adobe cabin running solar power for heat and light and a rain-catchment system for water.

The highlight of my recent trip to Big Bend was the Villa de la Mina concert in a defunct cinnabar mine between Lajitas and Terlingua. About a dozen musicians and one bona fide cowboy poet, and twice as many audience members, gathered beneath the earth for an underground audio and video recording of original songs about lost love, the absurdity of the stock market, sleeping under the stars, the border patrol, and being free. Being deep in the earth, with the unspoken possibility of a cave-in or lethal gasses escaping from the walls, surrounded by propane and candle lighting, flickering shadows, empty Lone Star cans, and crystallized minerals in the walls and domed ceiling, and a group of people who live to hear and play music, was nothing short of a magical experience.

As we all exited the mine going ever so slightly uphill along the narrow wooden mine-car tracks, tightly nestled between two walls of red rock, into the blinding sunlight, we knew that this concert would all bond us together in some way, if anything because so very few people in this world – living at the same time as us – would be able to enjoy this moment. Some of these people were residents of the Big Bend region, and some of us were visitors, mostly from Austin, who are now longing to go back.

At first, I didn’t completely understand the love that Big Bend residents had for their land and for their way of life. I didn’t understand why they felt so sad when they left and were always so anxious to return. I didn’t understand how they could go days without a shower, how they dealt with the never-ending dust on all clothes and belongings, how they could survive the cold and hot temperatures without central heat and cooling, how they could be so brave to use the outdoor potty (necessarily placed far enough away from the main shelter for sanitary reasons) in the middle of the night with coyotes and javelinas running wild.

By the end of ten days, I realized that feeling dirty in nature feels much cleaner than feeling dirty in the city, that campfires are entertaining and gorgeous ways to escape the cold, and that sitting in an outdoor potty with a 360-degree view of the desert is a thousand times more appealing now than sitting in an enclosed box of plaster and linoleum. I marveled at how one friend carefully placed a stone on top of an arrowhead we’d dug up to keep the critters from accidentally wounding themselves, how another friend went back into the cinnabar mine by herself to make sure no garbage was left behind, and how everyone in general did what they could to not only preserve the existing nature but also to minimize waste and re-use as much as possible.

We don’t own the earth, much in the way we don’t own the people we love. The only way the earth – and true love – will survive is if we don’t clutter it or restrain it for our own comfort, but rather, let it unfold as it naturally should.

Visit my Flickr page to see recent photos from West Texas.

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