On Living The Dream, And Living To Regret It (Sort Of)
by Sara Gray
Ah, vacations! How delightful it is to stop marketing my abilities for a week or two, and to instead buy sarongs, local microbrews, or legalized marijuana! Even better are the novel experiences to be had from travel. Several years ago, I went snorkeling over Belizean coral reefs blazing with neon fish. I’ll reminisce about that moment for years to come, especially after the planet’s acidifying oceans bleach corals to death.
While I always hope such experiences will jar me out of my routine in some way, I invariably return to the office and to being the stressed-out person I was before those precious two weeks off. Except for the one time I quit my job, packed my shit, and moved.
Like many Austinites of a certain demographic (30’s, DINK), my then-boyfriend/ now-husband and I made it out to Marfa a couple of times. Our first trip occurred in 2012, just weeks after Beyonce and her crew set the template for all future Marfa road trips. We slept in a safari tent at El Cosmico. We ogled Donald Judd’s boxes at the Chinati Foundation. We ate falafel at Food Shark. During our fancy dinner at Cochineal, our waiter gave us an additional half-carafe of wine for free, and so drunk were we over this unexpected kindness, we wobbled back to our tent to take schmoopy selfies instead of driving to see the Marfa Lights. Those had to wait until a return trip to Marfa the following year. Yes, the lights were real. Still are, in fact. But more impressive by far was the desert sky: a vastness ablink with stars, awash with epic cloudscapes, and lit with evening sunbeams that make everything as beautiful as Beyonce on vacation.
Of course I wanted to move there. During my past fourteen years in and near Austin, I had seen it go from “cool college town with great music” to “home base of rich brogrammers and their farm-to-table gastropubs.” I traded live music for Netflix binges as traffic and parking downtown had become too involved for this working stiff. I longed to trade my two hour commute for a fifteen minute bike ride. I imagined the adobe cabin we could live in, surrounded by desert emptiness. There, I would finally have time away away from commuting and sampling Austin’s delicious food trucks to write a sci-fi novel. Back at the office, I conducted obsessive searches for property and jobs in Marfa and nearby Alpine and Fort Davis. Little did I know that my fantasy planning would save my ass.
My cozy sinecure at the University of Texas landed on the budgetary chopping block in October 2013. By fiscal year’s end, I’d be out of a job. Bitter news indeed, made even more so by my daily commute, which passed under the smiling gaze of coach Mack Brown. The university’s elders plastered the face of their highest paid employee on billboards all over town, all while my meagerly-funded department struggled to teach children about evolution. Thus, amidst the tears of my fellow redundant coworkers, I combed UT’s job page. I also applied for state jobs in the Trans-Pecos area — you never know, right? My initial fantasy soon bore realistic fruit, and within weeks, I was invited out to Alpine to interview for two jobs, one of which was offered.
Circumstances aligned kismetically. My husband was already telecommuting. A couple I knew were desperate to leave their bee-infested rental on South Lamar. Not only could my partner work from anywhere, but I could put off the decision to sell my small Jollyville condo by renting it to trustworthy friends. Though the new job paid less, my rental income plus the lower cost of living in Alpine meant that I would take home slightly more than I had made at UT. That cinched it: we were moving to the desert. On February 1st, 2014, we uHauled our stuff 410 miles into a duplex in Alpine. Our front porch faced an unbroken view of the mountains and the setting sun.
There was an awkward adjustment period. Though I loved my new job, transferring from the largest university in the nation to one so small and remote was … difficult. I encountered workers in other departments who didn’t know what an email attachment was, or how to open one, because they still used faxes.
Stressful weeks at work were offset by magical weekends as we realized our Trans-Pecos fantasies. We went to the farmer’s market every Saturday, where we met the sweet older couple who grow our vegetables, the young mother who delivers our eggs, and the bespectacled student who brews our kombucha. We explored Terlingua’s Mad Max-ian ruins and canoed down the Rio Grande. We learned to love country and cumbia, though we still caught any indie acts that toured through Marfa, including surprisingly big names like The xx and Cat Power.
Chiefest among our plans was to explore all the local national and state parks. Texas, despite its much-ballyhooed size, has a minuscule amount of public land, and the biggest percentage of it was all around us in the Big Bend. Being big hikers, we were spoiled for choice. We headed out at least once a month to hike or camp. It was during one of our first hiking trips that I confronted the limits to my outdoorsy fantasy. It being a Sunday, we slept in, leisurely packed our stuff, drove the half hour to Marathon for a late breakfast, and then drove another hour to the entrance of Big Bend National Park. It was well past noon by the time we arrived at the Devil’s Den trailhead. It was only five miles to the canyon: an easy day, for one used to epic 12–14 mile day hikes.
But I wasn’t used to hiking in the desert.
I wasn’t a total fool. I was as covered in high-tech gear as an astronaut, swathed head to toe in hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved, sweat-wicking shirt, light pants, and sunscreen. I popped electrolyte pills and chugged water from my Camelbak every five minutes. Despite all of that, the white-hot radiance of high noon sapped energy from me like an invisible cosmic vampire. My knees grew wobbly after only a couple of miles, and I spent the rest of our hike lying prone under the only shade we could find, woozy and weak. We tried again as spring turned to summer, and I wilted no matter where we went, from the high elevations of the Davis Mountains to the bottom of Santa Elena canyon.
I soon learned I was foolish for trying to do anything outside in the summer between the hours of 11AM and 7PM. But the sun wasn’t our only foe. The sudden monsoon rains of late summer often foiled our plans, too. We attempted to visit Chinati Hot Springs in September, only to cancel at the last minute due to torrential rains that literally washed the road away.
Another time, we had almost finished an eleven mile hike in the Chisos Mountains when a sudden downpour soaked us to the bone. The sight of our sodden campsite was so depressing, I wussed out and paid for a night in the lodge. We sang a similar refrain in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where ceaseless winds flapped our little tent, and our sleepless minds, to shreds. Never have a hotel bed and hot bath been so welcome.
I could have sucked it up and accepted these setbacks as challenges. Though sitting under an air conditioner for 40 hours a week made it hard to fully acclimatize myself to the desert, I could have practiced with small hikes around town if I’d really wanted to. But that was the problem: I didn’t. Camping means dealing with the unexpected, and my reaction to all of our setbacks made me realize that I simply didn’t enjoy camping, despite how much I loved hiking and seeing wildlife. Accepting my innate level of wussitude wasn’t so great for my ego, but I’m past the age where I try to be something I’m not. I pursued other activities.
I wrote a few essays. I had a couple of local writers over for dinner, and I traded work with one until she moved to Montana. I never started that sci-fi novel, though not for lack of time. As with camping, I came to the humbling realization that if I truly wanted to write a novel, I would — I simply didn’t want to.
My partner, meanwhile, made the best of his spare time, teaching himself ukulele, cooking tasty dinners, and concocting ever more elaborate workout routines. I slowly succumbed to a routine of my own: that of post-work Star Trek binges and a languid yoga practice. Where once I sought to fill extra time with writing and exploring, I was now content to spend as much time as possible staring off into space. It helped that we had a porch with an excellent view. Why bust my ass hiking, when I could watch mule deer, painted buntings, gray foxes, and black-chinned hummingbirds right outside my door, and with a glass of wine to hand?
We grew to resent when our remote location impinged upon this pleasant state of affairs. My partner got a toothache, and the closest endodontist, out of network, naturally, was in El Paso, a six-hour round-trip drive from home. Our local grocery sold sad, bruised fruit and cream that curdled after only a few days in the fridge. Amazon Prime’s promise of two-day shipping really meant four or five days via Alpine’s overwhelmed post office. Though we were on beer-drinking terms with several folks, the largely conservative tenor in Alpine meant that we never felt comfortable with conversations beyond “Hey, how much rain did you get?” Marfa was little better. Though we made a few acquaintances, we ended up there as perpetual tourists, never as tastemakers or close friends. It’s been lonely.
Friendships take time to grow. We thought we had plenty to spare, but we were soon proved wrong.
We had lived in Alpine for a year and a half when my partner’s employer offered him a raise and coverage of moving expenses if he’d stop telecommuting. It was an offer we couldn’t reasonably refuse, and by the end of September this year, we’ll uHaul our worldly goods once more, this time over 1600 miles to Pittsburgh, PA. I worry about finding a new job, though I’ll have rental income and savings to see me through for a while. As much as I will miss the Trans-Pecos, I don’t regret this decision.
We had a chance to live out our idealized dreams of the outdoorsy life. Those dreams didn’t quite fit, but at least we know ourselves better. I also have memories that I’ll hold close forever: stars over McDonald Observatory, the fuzzy mane of a three-hour-old baby horse, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s rendition of “Kentucky,” sung just feet from me by the man himself. I also know that, no matter where I live, most of my time will be spent wrapped up in the routines of everyday living. Even if I lived in paradise, I would still need to shit and do my taxes. While it’s important to break out of these routines every once in a while, it’s equally vital to accept them as they are, especially when they work.
Last July, I sat next to a visiting Angeleno at the Crowley Theater. Like most tourists in Marfa, he was on his fashion A-game, sporting a somehow-not-douchey fedora, yellow-tinted glasses, and a sleek black jacket. We chatted as we waited for the show to start. Again, like most, like me, he dreamed of moving to town so he could finally have time for his art.
I took this as my cue to relish some townie smugness. “I thought the same thing when I moved here,” I countered. “But then I got here, worked a few months, and totally forgot about the mountains. I still have to remind myself that they’re there.”
He glared at me with icy condescension. “That will never happen to me.”
Well, annoying Angeleno guy, I hope that’s true. May you never, ever take for granted where you are. May we never forget to look up and see the mountains, even if, especially if, we’re not on vacation at the time. It’s easy to question everything while on vacation, but it’s another thing entirely to keep questioning when you move, particularly if you move to the land of your dreams. Routines can change, but the need for them will not, and you’ll be taking them with you, no matter where you go.
This story is part of our Travel Month series.
Sara Gray lives with her husband and her chihuahua in Alpine, Texas. She has written for the film magazine Bright Wall/ Dark Room and for Austin’s BedPost Confessions. She’s wearing her FilthMart Marfa t-shirt right now. She writes and occasionally posts pictures here.
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