The mountains were still there the next morning, and less surprising.
It is a strange sensation to leave a place knowing you will probably not return in this lifetime. Yeah yeah, “you never know!” But the truth is, you kind of do. There is a possibility that I will find myself back in Chicago or London or Los Angeles or Paris someday, because those are big cities. Companies host conferences there, friends move for new jobs, there is always more to explore… there are plenty of reasons I could repeatedly return to such places in 5, 10, or 40 years. But El Paso is in a remote corner of the country and I just can’t imagine a reason I’d ever go back.
Before leaving El Paso forever, we stopped at the Chamizal National Memorial. It’s on land that, after a shift in the Rio Grande, caused a tense boundary dispute between the US and Mexico that had been ongoing since the turn of the century.
It was finally settled in 1964 under Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. Today the small park is used for events and festivals that promote cultural understanding. I mostly just wanted to squint at Mexico a bit more before heading north.
We were surrounded by forsaken desert and listening to crackling radio static before we’d finished our coffee. Somehow the stretches of land became the most expansive we’d seen yet, and so followed about 100 miles of happy pointing and pondering.
Eventually we spied a mirage in the distance ahead. It resembled a row of signs with a building at the end. As we got closer, we realized it was actually a row of signs with a building at the end.
“Slow! Checkpoint ahead!” The signs told us.
The road went straight into a structure with a gate blocking the way out. The building was shaped like one of those covered wooden bridges that go over little creeks in Pennsylvania, except it was made out of concrete by communists and in the middle of the desert.
A man wearing a tactical vest and his partner, an unamused looking German Shepherd wearing a matching tactical vest, approached the car.
“What country are you a citizen of?” The man asked as the dog sniffed at the door.
“Uh, the United States,” Garrick said.
The man leaned further into the open window and looked at me.
“Yes, the United States,” I said.
He said thank you, took a step back and the gate opened. We left without having to provide any identification that backed our claims. I found it rather presumptuous that he looked at me and just immediately concluded I was not a drug lord, but, thus are the struggles of feminism.
Not long after re-initiating cruise control, another sign presented itself to us.
“No gas for 125 miles,” it said.
One would think a notice like this would be posted in front of a gas station, in the way those blue signs tell you “60 miles until next rest stop” right before the exit for an immediate rest stop.
But no, this one was just there, alone in the desert saying, “F you.”
We eyed the gauge – 130 miles worth of gas remaining. El Paso was almost the same amount of distance behind us as Carlsbad was ahead, so turning around didn’t make any sense.
“When cars say ‘empty’ they usually still have a few more gallons of gas,” I offered. “I think that’s a thing.”
Garrick said nothing, he was upset. I decided it was not a good moment to point out that we had been without cell phone service for over half an hour.
Garrick let our speed fall to 65 and set cruise control. He gripped the steering wheel and hunched forward.
“We’re going to make it,” I said. “Yeah we’ll roll in on empty, but we have five miles more than we need. We’ll make it.”
We passed a road on the left, leading off into desert scrub with no buildings in site. A sign next to it said “Dell City, 20 miles” with an arrow.
We debated whether they would have gas or not. The asshole sign we’d seen earlier had indicated there was no gas until Carlsbad, and we’d still had phone service at that point and were able to confirm it. But if Dell City was any sort of populous place, with people intentionally living 100 miles from any other civilization in either direction, they had to have gas.
“If it’s 20 miles to the Dell City limits from here,” Garrick reasoned, “and we drive all the way in only to find there is no gas, then drive back to this road, we’re down 40 miles and for sure get stranded before Carlsbad. But we might not make it to Carlsbad anyway. Do we take the gamble?”
We figured if there was gas in Dell City they would have advertised it on their sign, so we kept rolling on towards Carlsbad.
Garrick’s car displays the exact number of miles remaining in the gas tank digitally on the dashboard. We’d been watching this like it was a new episode of American Horror Story. The numbers had been slowly ticking down, one by one, until suddenly the total dropped by 15. I caught my breath and Garrick smacked the dashboard and said a few un-gentlemanly but situationally appropriate words.
We will never know what made our gas gauge number drop like that. A slight hill? Aliens? A Honda glitch? It’s a mystery whether we actually had less gas than we’d thought all along or if we would have made it to Carlsbad.
“We’re going back to Dell City,” Garrick said, turning the car about in the middle of the road because it’s the desert and you can do that. “We have no other option.”
I tried to comfort him by explaining that if they didn’t have gas, we could just live there and settle down with outlaws and other city slickers who weren’t very good at the desert.
“I just feel really, really stupid,” Garrick said. “How could I not have filled the car all the way up before heading into the desert?”
“The car had almost 300 miles in it,” I said. “Besides, it’s not like we kept seeing gas once we left El Paso. There just… wasn’t any. I know we haven’t been anywhere like this before, but I don’t think it’s so naive to assume you’ll be told when you’ve reached the final gas station for 200 plus miles, if only because that is excellent advertising.”
Garrick just grumbled some more. Now, if I beat myself up every time I found my way into a blunder, I’d never get anything else done.
We interrupt this blog post to bring you the Street Beer teaser of the day:
“Once I was wandering around the Deutsches Museum and got separated from my friends when I found a maintenance entrance to the roof. After climbing up and taking in the drizzly expanse of Munich, I went back into the building and walked through Neanderthal, space exploration and viking exhibits, absorbed for a while until I realized it was eerily quiet inside. I recalled a lot of talking over the loudspeakers half an hour earlier, but my German consists of, “Ein grosses bier, bitte” so I hadn’t thought much of it. It then occurred to me that the museum must have closed for the night while I was on the roof. The lights above the viking boats began clicking off…”
You’ll have to read Street Beer to find out if I survived.
Unlike yours truly, Garrick would put any Eagle Scout to shame with his preparedness. He has five flashlights and two first aid kits in his car. The other night we were out in Austin and our friend got a splinter. Garrick had tweezers. I make fun of him a lot for being a worrier, but, the result seems to be a highly functional adult, and that can be hard to find in the form of a 24 year old male, so I should probably leave him alone.
After passing a rabid looking coyote (not even this cheered Garrick up) we reached the turn onto the road to Dell City. The gravel was loose and the way was bumpy and far less traveled than the road we’d just been on. The first few buildings we passed, spread several acres apart from each other, were obviously abandoned and consisted of more skeleton than structure. Though I’ve always wanted to live in a fixer upper, this was not a good omen.
Soon, though, small houses and trailers with cars out front appeared and the land became agricultural. We saw tractors moving slowly across fields and a cluster of buildings shimmering farther ahead.
“Look, we have service again,” Garrick said as we approached the town.
We did a quick Dell City search and discovered they did have gas. We also learned the town was incorporated in 1948 after oil prospectors found an underground water supply. This attracted farmers to the area and now the city has about 400 residents. The school district has about 100 students total, kindergarten through 12th grade.
Laura Lynch, the original lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, is from Dell City. She was replaced by Natalie Maines before the band became popular, and for all I know she’s back in Dell City today, living in wide open spaces while her replacement sings about them.
It was hard to believe anyone came out of this hidden hamlet deep in the desert shadow of the Guadalupe Mountains. Slightly more believable was the existence of Paulville, right outside the southwest Dell City limits.
Paulville is a 50 acres site and planned community that is apparently only for Ron Paul supporters.
The cooperative is modeled to match the presidential candidate’s libertarian values, though in 2008 the New York Times listed it as little more than an idea and a title deed.
If you get a chance, paulville.org is a real treat, though I do think one should be required to pass a grammar test before beginning a cult.
You might think “cult” sounds harsh on my part, but take a few clicks around the website and learn how the West Texas location is intended to be just the first of many happy Ron Paul communities and then get back to me.
We didn’t go deeper into the desert to neighboring Paulville because we’d had enough fear for one day. Plus, Dell City turned out to be awesome, and we didn’t want to taint that.
After filling the car, we went inside a wooden shop that was more hardware store than gas station. A handwritten sign above the counter said, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” I hoped this was to aid in discrimination against Paulville townies and not half-Asians.
“How much did you get?” A smiling older man asked.
“10 gallons,” Garrick said.
“That’ll be $22.23,” he said, adding something about how chilly it was that afternoon.
We said goodbye and stepped back outside. Standing by the car, we looked around. The surrounding stores looked weather-battered but not uncared for. A few people ambled from one building to another and a pickup truck passed, going about as slow as the walkers but stirring up a lot more dust.
“You know we have to explore, right?” I said.
“Of course,” Garrick, who was back in a good mood, agreed.
We matched the local pace and drove at a crawl up and down the streets. We passed two cowboy-hat-clad men standing next to a small water tower, pointing at it and talking. We saw a few cafes and restaurants, though it wasn’t clear if they were closed at the moment or indefinitely.
Down a side road was Two T’s Groceries. We parked and went in. The creaky wooden floors and neatly arranged shelves made for a cozy, not cramped, interior. A smiling woman in swishy skirts and fur boots flitted around the store restocking and arranging goods while another, taller woman in denim worked the register. Behind a curtain, where the restrooms were located, were several shelves packed with DVDs for rent. There was also a coffee bar and small hot food selection at the counter.
While purchasing our coffee, Garrick suddenly decided he wanted to eat his feelings, I think, and added a corn dog to his order. I piped in a request for fried chicken, as well.
“Oh, our chicken is amazing,” the denim lady told me.
“It smells good,” I said.
“It sells out all the time,” she continued. “I eat it for breakfast almost every morning.”
“Wow,” I said. “Well…I’m excited.”
“Oh you should be,” she said, giving the bag a little pat as she handed it to us.
We began the half hour drive out of Dell City toward the “main” road. At least we had lunch.
The chicken was phenomenal. I was going to take a picture after I tried it, but a few bites in and I fell into a sort of chicken-tunnel-vision-trance and didn’t put it down again until it was gone.
Garrick and I have been quite taken with Dell City ever since our visit, and not just because the most unexpected travel days result in the best stories. Maybe we’re foolishly romanticizing the simplicity of it all, but everyone we encountered seemed so warm and joyful, and that chicken was really good.
Paris-Shmaris. No matter what happens in our marriage and life ahead, we’ll always have Dell City.