Day 1 – Belton to San Elizario

Don’t you love it when your alarm goes off and you realize, in those first beats of consciousness, that it is Saturday?

In the days leading up to our departure I’d done much map staring and zero packing, so Garrick and I downed coffee and packed in a frenzy to Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

By 9 a.m. the dog was with one sitter, cat care instructions were written out for the other and the car was clean, loaded and ready to go.

“Let’s go on an adventure,” Garrick said.

We took off without a care. By that I mean we locked the house, got out of the car to unlock the house to check the oven one more time, locked the house, got out of the car again to check that we did lock the house, and then headed to the interstate reassuring each other that the oven was off and no, the cats probably wouldn’t be able to turn it on because they are lazy and entitled.

Garrick and I grew up 30 miles apart in Northern Virginia. There were about 1.5 million people, 45 high schools and countless elementary schools geographically separating our childhoods.

The suburbs outside of Washington DC are dense, any chain store, restaurant or entertainment option desired can be found in a five mile radius. Also, traffic is horrific, so there’s no reason to travel to a new town for the same strip-mall America stuff already in your own.

The suburbs also change drastically as you move away from the city. Haymarket, where Garrick grew up, is about 45 minutes from the nearest metro stop. It has more space and less crime. Springfield, where I grew up, is skateboarding distance from the end of the blue line. It has more beltway and less parking.

I think these differences explain why I like to ride the gas and Garrick is nicer to homeless people. It also explains why he is afraid of non-white people. Just kidding, he’s half Filipino, if you are still squinting at his picture trying to figure it out. I like it. Him. Racial ambiguity is trendy.

The fact we grew up 30 miles apart and never knew of each other, each other’s friends or preferred hangout spots baffles the Texans. When they find out we didn’t meet until college, they exclaim, “How wild is that, ya’ll!”

30 miles is not far at all in Texas. It’s almost disconcerting, to a non-native anyway, how you can drive 30 miles and still be on the same ranch. 

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A photo from Texas Monthly offering another method to grasp the state’s hugeness.

Garrick and I live in the middle of the state, yet it took us eight hours to reach El Paso. We were awed by the vastness of West Texas.

“I’ve never seen so much undeveloped land,” Garrick said.

“Who owns this?” I asked. “Nothing is growing, there are no oil rigs or windmills and hardly a smattering of cows. What is it for? What is all of this land doing?”

Spoiler, we never did figure that out. The stretch to El Paso was the first of many forlorn landscapes we would chug through in the coming two weeks. No buildings, no agriculture, no fences or road signs, just America, baking under the desert sun and being free, I guess.

Somewhere between Eldorado and Fort Stockton, I screeched and popped upright in the passenger seat, bouncing and pointing at the road ahead.

“What!” Garrick said, also straightening abruptly. The motion gave the wheel a jerk, the first of any sort of turn the car had made in the last 170 miles or so.

“I saw a tumbleweed,” I said, scanning the road. “THERE’S ANOTHER ONE.”

Until I crossed the Texas border in route to my new place of habitation, I’d never even been near the state. I figured it’d be full of truck-driving, gun-wielding conservative rodeo stars and tumbleweeds. I was right, minus the tumbleweeds. When I walk through the Walgreens parking lot or stand in the middle of the street facing an opponent in a showdown duel, not once has a tumbleweed gone bouncing appropriately by.

This was a huge disappointment, so you can imagine my joy when I saw tumbleweeds of all sizes rolling across the road. Texas and the universe had come through.

“This is the best thing that has happened to me in months,” I said.

Garrick glanced at my left hand, which I was still waving about excitedly, sunlight hitting my engagement ring and reflecting explosions of light across the dashboard.

“Fine,” I said, patting his arm, “Second best thing.”

We had been warned that the drive through west Texas would be long and boring, but the day passed quickly. Partly because we were giddy about the two weeks of travel that lay ahead and also because we had never seen anything like the Texas desert. We were enthralled with the abyss and happy to gape for hours.

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Sunset outside Balmorhea, Texas, population 479.

Just after sunset the air became startlingly cold and windy. This is a thing that happens in the desert, along with tumbleweeds. We pulled into a rest stop for a final bathroom break before our last stretch of driving.

As we ran back to the car against the wind, Garrick said, “Did the women’s bathroom also have a sign saying, ‘Do not flush toilet paper’ and a giant, open trash can next to it?”

“Yeah,” I said. “The trashcan was overflowing, too. The smell is going to haunt my dreams tonight.”

We ran a little faster.

A couple hours later my phone lit up the car, dark like the black desert around us. I looked down to see this text message.

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One time I accidentally went to Canada, so there was certainly a possibility I had evaded a wall and armed border patrol and fumbled my way into another country by accident.

But we weren’t in Mexico, just really close.

mexico

We reached San Elizario shortly after 8:00 p.m. We decided to stop in the historic town outside El Paso after seeing a flyer for a Luminaria festival.

The festival had a pleasant turnout – kids chased each other around a grassy square and adults mingled in front of food trucks selling tamales and Mexican hot chocolate.

By way of informative signs sprinkled outside tidy, whitewashed adobe buildings, we learned the presidio – a Spanish fortified military settlement – was established in 1789. It was built to protect Spanish residents from the native Apaches (who, for some reason, were mad about the Spaniards claiming the land, introducing new diseases and disregarding them as human beings) and a town grew up around it.

 

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The presidio chapel, built in 1877 on the same site of the original Spanish chapel.

 

“Hi there,” said a voice behind us. “Where are you two visiting from?”

After introductions, our new pal Al told us the Luminaria festival was almost cancelled due to the wind. Considering they put tiny fires inside 6,000 brown paper bags and distribute them all over town, this seemed reasonable.

Lucky for Al, who turned out to be the event’s organizer, the wind quieted down enough at the last minute and they decided to carry on with the celebration. I suppose Al identified us as visitors because we were reading building plaques like dorks and were the only attendees in site who did not appear to be of Mexican descent.  

“You missed Las Posadas,” Al said. “Come on, I’ll tell you about it.”

We trotted after Al back to the square. He walked us through the route the Posadas procession had taken earlier that evening to kick off the festival.

Las Posadas is a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging on the night of Jesus’s birth. Doors were set up along a little path through the San Elizario square. According to Al, the procession, complete with a child playing Mary and riding a real donkey, approached each stand-alone door only to be told there was no room at the inn. At the end of the path was a manger complete with real sheep. The posada ended with baby Jesus being placed in the manger, where he would remain for the night as everyone rejoiced around him. This was not complete with a real baby.

Though we’d missed Las Posadas, Al informed us traditional Mexican dancing and pinata smashing was still to come.

“A traditional pinata has seven points to represent the seven cardinal sins,” Al, the Mexican Morgan Freeman, told us in his mesmerizing storytelling voice. “Beating the pinata represents the fight against temptation. The candy inside is the reward for conquering evil.”

We agreed to stick around for some defeating of sin and Al ran off to assemble the dancers.

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One of numerous traditional Mexican dances we tapped our foot along to that evening.

The dancers took a bow together, then the pinata (larger than many of the children in line to take a whack at it) was hoisted into the air by a man standing on the roof of a barracks-turned-museum.

Al bestowed the bat upon child after child, with a wise, “don’t let go,” murmured each time he placed it into a new set of tiny, eager hands.

try-again
Envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath are no match for this mini San Elizario crusader for the cause of candy.

Garrick and I had intended to watch a couple kids have a go at the pinata and then head out, but the spectacle turned out to be so delightful and satisfactory that we stayed the solid 20 minutes it took to crack the thing open. Kids don’t hesitate or hold back like adults tend to. Witnessing the force and intensity of the blows paired with the uninhibited joy on the little faces poking out from hats, scarves and furry hoods was definitely the third best thing to happen to me in months.

We spent the night in a hotel on Fort Bliss. Oh yeah, that job Garrick has is working for America. So he should probably know what they do with all that space, come to think of it. He’s a Lieutenant in the Army, and that comes with trip perks like free admission into national parks and $50 rates for nice hotels on any base in the country.

I lay in bed and thought about the little towns we’d glimpsed – San Saba, Brady, Richland Springs and more. I thought about scrubby brush stretching so far into the distance it  blended with the sky. I thought about the bold colors of traditional Mexican dresses, the matching colors of the pinata and 6,000 glowing paper lanterns. I thought about my favorite Humans of New York post. It’s a photo of a 93 year old woman sitting on a stoop. She had interacted with the photographer for less than two minutes. Her only noted remark: “If you force yourself to go outside, something wonderful always happens.”

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Children play on as Garrick stomps out a rogue, flaming luminaria in San Elizario.

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