Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thankful for Texas Road Tripping and 20 Years of Friendship

Lindsey's birthday is two days before mine in early April, and we celebrated together all through high school and college, starting when we were 14. We've lived in different cities ever since 2005 so it's been more rare to be together, but this year we realized that we were coming up on 20 years of friendship.
"Did you know there are mountains in West Texas?" Lindsey asked. And just like that, a joint birthday road trip was born. I flew down to her place in Austin in late March, and we signed off from work, loaded up the car with provisions, and took off driving west on open road for hundreds of miles.
Our destination was Big Bend National Park which borders Mexico in West Texas. Never heard of it? I hadn't either. That's probably because (according to Wikipedia) "Big Bend is one of the largest, most remote, and least-visited national parks in the lower 48 United States. In recent years, only 300,000–350,000 visitors have entered the park annually."

It makes sense that it's not heavily visited because it's not really near anything. It's a haul from any direction to get there, but it's easy to spot on a map. See the big bend in the Rio Grande with the green park around it?
On our way to Big Bend, we stopped for a night in the desert art town of Marfa. It's a one-of-a-kind place that's hard to describe, but this fascinating, in-depth Vanity Fair article from 2012 is a good start. The sub-title says: The tiny West Texas border town of Marfa is 200 miles from anywhere, but after the late minimalist artist Donald Judd acquired dozens of its buildings, filling them with everything from Rembrandts to light sculptures, art-world pioneers and pilgrims made it their playground. Sean Wilsey and Daphne Beal channel the mix of tumbleweeds, talent, and iconoclasm that is key to Marfa’s mystique.
We drank cocktails in the courtyard of a fancy bar, happy to stretch our legs in the warm afternoon sun after the 450-mile drive. We walked around town and checked out some art before grabbing dinner. When night hit, we drove nine miles out of town to try to see the Marfa lights, unexplained orbs of light that have been seen in that area since the 1800s. There is an official viewing area and we saw them, balls of yellow and red in the dark desert, rising up from the ground and disappearing. Lindsey found it underwhelming but I thought it was crazy.
Train tracks in Marfa, Texas
It rained that night but cleared up by late the next morning. We veered south, stopping in the mining ghost town of Terlingua just outside the national park.
Ruins in Terlingua
Then we made it to Big Bend! It's the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the United States and the only national park with a whole mountain range (the Chisos) inside.
We drove to the Chisos Basin, a bowl valley that is a gateway to the heart of the mountain range, and backpacked in a few miles. The next day, we hiked up to Emory Peak, the highest point in the park at 7,825 feet. It's the 13th highest peak in the state and the most prominent peak in Texas.

On the Emory Peak trail

View from the top of Emory Peak

Hiking out of our campsite
The next day we drove to the far southeastern corner of the park to check out a hot spring right on the Rio Grande. Or rather, in the Rio Grande. There are rocks sectioning off the hot pool, and the water surface is probably two feet above the river, but you're essentially sitting in the river with Mexico 20 feet away.
Natural hot spring in the Rio Grande
We had a lot of time together in the car to talk, nap, watch scenery whiz by, and listen to music. We mostly listened to Texan singer/songwriters, but also had to play Car by Built to Spill in homage to a drive Lindsey and I took in 2000 to the Lake Wenatchee area right after graduating high school.

You get the car
I'll get the night off
You'll get the chance
to take the world apart
and figure out
how it works.
Don't let me know
what you find out.

We talked about the last 20 years, especially the last 5where we are now and all the things we couldn't have predicted for ourselves or for friends and family. There had been many hardships, like dealing with heartbreak, career struggles, traumatic brain injury, cancer, miscarriage, divorce. And there had also been so much beauty and joy. Lindsey was getting married in a few months, and had found a home in the unlikely state of Texas. Friends were starting families and businesses and buying homes and going to grad school. I had done a lot of things professionally and personally that I was passionate about and that made me really happy. We both worked at jobs that we enjoyed and where our skills were put to use and appreciated.

It was serendipitous that a good mutual friend called in the first hour of our road trip, just was we were getting into the heart of the hill country outside of Austin. We put him on speaker phone and he told us big news: after years of writing in his spare time, looking for a literary agent, and sending his book to publishers, he had just gotten his first book deal from a major publisher. And not just for the one book, but a sequel that wasn't even written yet. Lindsey and I both got teary immediately, and I had to make an extra effort to focus on the road, grinning and bleary-eyed and feeling overwhelmingly proud of him. We had believed in him, and it was like an affirmation of so many other things: love the heck out of your friends and keep trusting in what you know to be true and don't get discouraged as you plunge into the unknown. It was a reminder that the good will come, even if it takes years and wrenching disappointments and strength you didn't know you had. 
Looking into Mexico at the Chihuahua Mountains 
It was pretty much the best birthday ever. Cheers to another 20 years of friendship, and countless other things to be grateful for.