Big Bend and Marfa

Even before impromptu opportunity if we become members of the Chinati, we can maybe see the xx? we’ve wanted to camp in Big Bend and return to the McDonald Observatory. See the heavens through giant telescopes, through our naked eyes, tiny orbs in the galaxy and the Marfa lights. What the heck, let’s take the risk—throw down for membership then doublefist phones when reservations for the show go live.

Arthur eventually gets through. We get tickets. We book a room at the Paisano in Marfa and borrow Giant from the library and hiss it to each other in Spanish like we got something to be sultry about and map out a loop of 1300 miles of the breathtaking and beautiful.

Big Bend books from the public library.

The first two nights we stayed in the Rio Grande Village of the National Park. There’s also the Big Bend Ranch State Park, which we eventually drive through, and across the Rio Grande, a string of national parks in Mexico. The total expanse is massive.

Here is our campsite, made hastily in the dark to catch a nighttime lecture on the resident birds of prey.

Scenic campsite with tent and crazy tree.

Our first full day, we explored.

Arthur on the barren landscape.

I was amazed by the biodiversity, especially of plants—prickly pear and brush and dozens of things I don’t know the names of, muscling in the rocky soil for scarce sips of rain.

Below is the ocotillo, my new best friend. So charming! I could not get enough. We were lucky to visit when their firecracker blooms burst that gorgeous orange from the tips of their spiny tendrils.

UFO ocotillo

That’s a turkey vulture above dead center—not a UFO, and not a bird of prey though we learned about them anyway, barfing all over the road to lighten their load when struggling to take flight from approaching vehicles.

Vultures are actually in the stork family.

Everywhere were signs of vibrant color, life,

A cactus with yellow blossoms.

and living that don’t come easy.

Desiccated cactus.


Layered rock outcropping with a wizened palm tree.

Here are some bird hidey-holes

Swallow nests.

and petroglyphs of ancient ghosts

Pictures chipped into the rocks by ancient peoples. They look like Pac-Man ghosts.

nicked and jotted on rock.

Dark red drawings on rocks.

Across the Rio Grande is the small town of Boquillas. There is a border crossing right in the park, but you can’t visit without a passport. While I was aware this most official of documentation is required, it didn’t occur to me that we could actually go to actual Mexico, so we didn’t pack our papers.

Colorful buildings from a distance in Boquillas.

No matter, the city came to us as tiny craft stores along the trails. I bought the ocotillo to remember it forever. Arthur got a roadrunner because MEEP!

Bead and wire sculpture crafts.


A rock that says, Donations for singing Mexican Jesus.

We didn’t see him.

Me with binoculars overlooking the Rio Grande.

That’s the Rio Grande, y’all.

Where it thinned less than Grande, I couldn’t help myself.
I ran away to Mexico.

Me wading across the shallow river to the other side.


Scenic canyon.

The depressions in the bedrock are remnants of mortars (as in, “and pestles”) made by American Indians to grind nuts and seeds.

A perfectly round hole in a rock. It's about a foot deep.

Men and boys fish the fluid border in Boquillas Canyon.

A long shot of people dotting the river shore.

By the time we picked all of the cactus out of Arthur’s arm, microscopic needles he didn’t notice go in, the light went strange.

Arthur crossing a bridge. The sky is an unreal blue while the grasses are bright golden from the setting sun.


Me throwing my head back laughing.


Ascending stone steps.


Headshot of Arthur smiling.


Me posing behind an ocotillo, a cactus with long spindly arms and bright orange flowers.


Me posing by the same ocotillo.

It’s all the same earth, same country, same Texas, except the parts that aren’t, well you know what I mean.

Arthur surveying the landscape.


Me surveying the landscape.

Lounging on the mountain we waited for Orion.
Jupiter, the moon, and Mars came too.

Arthur circles the sun with his fingers.

The next day searching for a petroglyph of a bear on the back of a rock that a ranger heard a rumor of, I give a snake a SHOUT and skin my shin and find only another most perfect milling mortar

A rock with another milling hole in it.

and curiously round stones.

Round stones, many of which are cracked but still in a spherical shape.

I wanted to take this whole thing home with me, but, you know, federal law and stuff.

A rock makes a bowl shape, with a cactus blooming out of it.

Nestled between the national and state parks is the one-time mining town of Terlingua, complete with self-guided ghost town tour, where we wended around rusty nails standing straight up after all these years they’ll make ghosts of us yet.

Arthur walking on a precarious floor of an abandoned school.

Here are more ancient holes created by people to oh wait.

An ancient outhouse.


Landscape shot with a blank billboard, like an old drive-in movie screen.

Definitely a UFO.

Sculpture of a UFO made with scrap metal and odd parts.

Playing in a mine-shaft elevator.

Me in a mine-shaft elevator.

Not satisfied with the phantoms seen so far, we explored Terlingua Cemetery.

Terlingua Cemetery sign.

I’ve never seen one quite like it, with the rocks piled high in mounds like the bodies didn’t go in holes at all.

Shot of the cemetery.


Another shot of the cemetery. Old, natural-color wooden crosses are prominent.


A fallen over cross near a rare conventional headstone.


A memorial site with prayer flags and a laughing Buddha statue.


A grave with an American flag strewn with beer bottles.

We braved steep gravel and dust devils for our third night of camping at Chinati Hot Springs, where we were warned of falling branches, black widow spiders and toppling from the height of pool chairs.

Hyper-blue hot springs pool surrounded by bamboo.

The water was damn fine, a sore sight in these desert parts that slurp out your moisture and cake your joints with grime.

Another swimming pool.

A shout-out to my Fit for being such an efficient wee beast, chewing through miles and dust like it warn’t no thing, with plenty of room for camp gear, snacks and all of our wonder.

My Honda Fit with its hatchback up.

A fence made of ocotillo bones! I could have cried yet marveled at the parts that took root and exploded fire anyway.

A fence made of ocotillo.

Arthur took care to complete his fitness goals

Arthur pretending to use a broken down treadmill in the middle of the desert.

and was ever the good neighbor once we got to Marfa.

Arthur takes a photo on a tripod of a group of college-age youth posing in front of Prada Marfa.

We were in town during this offbeat, art oasis’ de facto weekend, Monday and Tuesday, so many of the establishments were closed, including the Chinati we were members of and everything.

But there was plenty to see if your eyes were tuned right.

A stone wall with an interesting design at the top.


Arthur looking out the window of the town hall observation deck.


An old, interesting building with great cactus out front.


A weird bust sculpture with it's neck wired to the wall.


Marfa public library sign.


A pickup outside the Book Barn.

I was especially fond of the library’s homemade oversized collection.

Book title: There Will Be Austinites.


Book titles: Tex-tual Healing.


Book titles: No Country 4 Healthcare, Big Benders: Swingers Along the Rio Grande.

OH yeah, and there was a concert that we went to!

Selfie of Arthur and me.

It was an intimate crowd too cowed to dance but the space was great and the xx made me cry.

Artsy silhouettes of the xx.


The xx awash in yellow and blue light.


Another xx photo.

We danced anyway and strangers said we were great, we are Grande, Giant, Jupiter we peeped the next night from afar, along with Mars and different views of the moon, and the Orion nebulae that helps form the belt that keeps the sky’s pants up.

We’d picked out the heavenly bodies every night of our trip so far—so cool as a finale to see them up close, or as close as close gets, snuggled in our horse blankets.

Leaving the observatory in the pitch I saw my first javelina, dead in the road GIGANTE! like a werewolf. Big Science tricks good, this is still wild country. Next time might not be so lucky. A feral pig, a fierce gale could throw my Fit right off the mountain.

Our last day out we missed our dogs extra hard.

A window front with 19 photos of shelter dogs and cats looking for its forever home.

Relieved to leave the desert, in those endless miles we interrogated the heat and horizon how could you live? with the grit permanently in your pores, where you wake with bloody noses, where the vultures bring the babies and your grave is marked with more weight?

But I know in dusty hearts we’d go again in a second.