West of West Texas

May 25th, 2017

The problem with Texas is that there is too much of it. Almost all trips in the state are measured in terms of hours. The journey from College Station to El Paso was supposed to be ten hours and forty minutes of driving time. That’s not the total amount of time; that’s just windshield time. Looking at it a different way: the distance comes to 685 miles. Good Lord.

The drive was interesting for the first couple hours, even if I discount the unfortunate incident with the Texas Highway Patrolman. Karin and I were initially traveling through the Texas wine country; vineyards, orchards and stands of oak trees. We went past the LBJ Ranch. Even west of there, the landscape was full of rolling hills and winding turns.

Once we got onto I-10, things started to change. The terrain is was still rugged, and it stayed that way for many miles. It actually became mountainous through the Pecos. However, the vegetation changed for the worse as drove west. First, we saw lots of scrub oak and juniper. Then those trees disappeared and we saw mesquite. Later the mesquite gave way to creosote bushes, yucca, and sage. Eventually, we were just looking at dirt. The closer we got to El Paso, the more things resembled a lunar landscape.

In most of the places we’ve been, there have always been advertisements for coming attractions. Metropolis, Illinois, has an enormous statue of Superman. Wisconsin has the House on the Rock. South Dakota has both Wall Drug and the Corn Palace. Near Idaho Falls is the Potato Museum. Missouri has billboards for Meramac Caves all along I-44. Just about any little town in the nation can come up with something interesting to lure in the suckers. There are always crudely written signs that say things like: “Welcome to Gotefuqq, Arkansas! Home of the World’s Tallest Midget!”

Not so in west Texas. There are no billboards for attractions because there are no attractions. The scenery is beautiful in a brutal, life-threatening sort of way. However, there isn’t much out there to bring in tourist dollars. The biggest town on the way to El Paso is Fort Stockton. Go online and look up pictures of Fort Stockton, and try not to get depressed. The town’s claim to fame is that it has two exits off the freeway.

Most of the signs on the I-10 are subtly disturbing. Messages like: “No services for 100 miles” or “542 miles to El Paso” or “Exit only. No return to freeway”. Exit only? That last sign bothered me. Why would they only have an off ramp? Why would they want a person to be unable to get back onto the main (and the only) highway? Especially here, where there is literally nothing but heat and scorpions, why have a one way road to Hades?

As Karin drove, she liked to check on the outside temperature.

“Hey, it’s 101 degrees out there!”

“Nice,” I replied.

“Oh, now it’s 103.”

“Excellent.”

“I bet its gets hotter as the day goes on.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“The sun is getting pretty high.”

“How much gas do we have?”

“Why?”

“Oh, just curious.”

We kept the temperature inside the car at about 72 degrees while we drove. Eventually, we stopped at one of the rare rest areas to take a break. I opened my door and the heat slapped me upside the head.

“Holy shit!”

Karin asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just trying to get some oxygen.”

Some people have told me that it’s not so bad in the desert because it has dry heat. I am aware that I sweat a lot more in humid climates (I remember my days in Alabama), but, at some point, hot is hot. The surface of the planet Mercury has dry heat. I don’t want to live there.

One time, I saw a couple oil derricks in the distance. They must have been burning off natural gas, because there was a large orange flare. Nearby, a pickup truck was rolling across a dirt road that led from nowhere to nowhere. The truck was kicking up a cloud of dust. Sometimes it was hard to tell moving vehicles from the dust devils. From far away the dust looks the same.

We sometimes saw a travel trailer or a camper in the wasteland, surrounded by creosote bushes, and slowly baking in the sun. I guess somebody lives there. But why? Why live here? This is Mad Max territory. This country has that desolate, post-apocalyptic feel to it. This is not a land for the weak.

Hans was talking to us about getting a job in west Texas. A friend told him that he could be making mega-money if he went back to the oil fields. Hans mentioned that the oil companies are having trouble finding workers to go out there. No shit. I can’t imagine why.

When we came close to El Paso, we could see the green fields near the Rio Grande to the left of us. Any land near the river was irrigated, and green as green could be. It was hazy in the direction of the Rio Grande, probably from the moisture in the air. To our right, the desert showed itself in all its stark grandeur. It was like this for miles.

The bad thing was that our journey wasn’t over in El Paso. We planned on staying in a retreat house in Las Cruces, which is forty-five miles beyond El Paso. It was a reason for celebration when we finally got to El Paso, but it was also just a tease. We weren’t home yet.

Holy Cross Retreat Center is in Mesilla Park, New Mexico. That is a southern suburb of Las Cruces. Holy Cross is another one of those locations that refuses to show up on the GPS. The GPS got us close enough. Holy Cross is an oasis, literally. There are pecan groves all around the facility. Narrow concrete channels funnel water to the trees. Stray dogs drink from the channels. Local kids chase the dogs.

The retreat center has that Mexican adobe look to it. This makes sense, since we are only a few miles from the border. There was a beautiful chapel and a large retreat house with dozens of rooms. After all that time on I-10, this property looked lush. There were huge mulberry trees, along with pines, cedars, and rose bushes. Karin and I found our room. We settled in, and then Father Tom came over to visit with us. He’s about our age. He limps. Father Tom grew up on a farm in Indiana, and he lost part of his leg in an accident as a child.

Holy Cross is run by Franciscans. The Franciscans are a distinct flavor of Catholicism. They go back to the 12th century in Italy, back to their founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Franciscans are focused on simplicity, poverty, and compassion. They are Zen Catholics. I love them.

That evening, I spent quite a while talking with Father Tom. After having been with Hans for a while, I needed to vent concerning how I felt about God. I told him flat out that I wasn’t sure that God gave a damn. Father Tom didn’t have any pat answers to my questions. He just acknowledged that I was hurting, and then he told me that God really does love Hans, and Hannah, and Stefan, and Karin, and even me. There aren’t any good answers to the question of suffering, but we believe in God anyway.

We had a good night at Holy Cross. After a breakfast of tortillas, huevos, and frijoles, Karin and I left to go to another retreat house. We drove north to Christ in the Desert.

 

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