Two weeks ago I drove from Austin to Santa Fe, dipping south on highway 90 through all that the Texas wilderness is – seemingly a vast expanse of the nothingness that is desert, an arid sea of earth and rock compressed by big sky. Like most deserts, Texas is a paradoxical landscape: full of nothing, whimsical and grounded, stark yet indistinct, a desolate landscape where under hot sun, lavender-colored sage, cactus flowers and green grass grow. Amidst synonyms like wasteland, barren, infertile, desolate, the deserts of Texas bloom in spite of it all, creating a contradictory landscape and culture that made me realize how little I know about this big lone star state.
I’ve written about the desert before as a place that can empty you, can open a space within a person where inspiration is almost inevitable. And as an outsider, this massive stretch of other-worldly earth felt this way; with so much space to dream, how can you not dream big? But we see the places we visit through a comparative lens of where we’ve been before and through the satisfaction of checking off another chartered territory on a map. This can be a beautiful way to see a place. Fresh eyes and loose references can illuminate truths lost to long-time inhabitants. But it can also lend a rosy tint to the time-worn actualities of what living in a place really means. And in Texas – the open and wild and beautiful – a kind of repression seems to permeate the landscape, leaving residents in certain rural areas unsure of what to do, and creating cultural conflicts that make the big sky feel claustrophobic – paradoxically trapped in wild open nothingness.
Not knowing enough to speak without speculation about the economics and politics of a place, I go back to the landscape. Landlocked by miles of desert, it must be easy to feel lost, to feel like there is no way out. And I spoke to people who never have made it out, to teens who figured they’d never leave their block-long towns, or said they’d join the army because that was their only opportunity to see the world or go to college. By way of the presumed wasteland of huge Texan desert, people themselves perhaps feel bleak and destitute.
But Texas is not a wasteland. Coming from Northern California where the summer can dry a river, a sun-scorched landscape is a barren landscape. What I didn’t know until night came in tiny Marfa, TX, is that that big sky breeds big storms. Out of nowhere, the earth lit up like day, the sky bellowed and clapped, and the rain came in torrents, making the earth smell sweet and swell green. To see such a storm in the dead of summer, to see that wide open sky fill with brooding clouds, gave Texas an edge, a little mystery. And in the morning, the wet earth lent an aura of quiet vitality, the kind that sits beneath the skin of a person waiting for the paradoxical coin to flip in their favor, to bring moisture to their landlocked dreams.
If people are the products of their environments, there is a reason that I also met people with stormy temperaments — undocumented Mexican artists building sculptures next to boarder patrol facilities, frontiersmen and women gathering strength from the land, academics and proprietors and crafters all choosing this arid landscape and choosing to make it a fertile home.