MY imagination was captured when I read a story about an 80-year-old woman in Cape Town, South Africa who decided she was going to drive her old Toyota to England, alone, to have tea with the Queen. She set out with great fanfare and drove, by herself, from South to North Africa. Along the way she was helped by strangers and joined by her children for part of the journey, but essentially she was alone. She somehow made it through Europe, across the English Channel, and to London. When she arrived at Buckingham Palace, the Queen, not appreciating this woman’s journey, was otherwise engaged. But, no bother, part of the woman’s dream was realized, she had tea with new-found friends, and headed back to her home in South Africa. The journey reclaimed her youth. I didn’t know it then, but a seed was planted by her story.
AFTER leaving Texas in my early twenties, I had a dream of returning to Big Bend. When I was 20 I visited Big Bend National Park and though I wasn’t there long I never forgot the feeling I had of being there and I always wanted to go back for a longer visit. It was one of those geographical spots that deeply resonated with a siren call to return. Life happened and 48 years went by.
I retired at 68 in March 2019. I was done. After my retirement party, I said adieu to my colleagues and walked out the door into the bright sun of a new life. I had a seed; I had a dream; I had a plan. And I finally had time.
MY solo road trip (plan) took me south from my home in Colorado, through New Mexico, east into West Texas, and south to Big Bend National Park. My journey would take me through towns I had longed to revisit: Alpine, Marfa, Marathon. I longed to see the West Texas night sky again and the Davis, Guadalupe, and Chisos mountains. The wide open spaces and dry, pristine beauty of the geography was calling me back.
THAT was Leg One. Leg Two would be to Archer City, TX where Larry McMurtry built several bookstores lining both sides of Main Street. The dream of making a pilgrimage to Archer City, visit his bookstores and if the stars aligned, meet the great writer himself, had been on a back burner since I received a typewritten letter from Mr. McMurtry in the 1980s.
WHY stop in Texas? Leg Three was to continue driving east to Birmingham, AL to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (National Lynching Memorial), which I’d wanted to visit and pay my respects to since I’d first heard of it on NPR. And because Selma is close to Montgomery (51 miles), of course I would have to drive over to Selma to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to pay homage to Martin Luther King, John Lewis and so many others who are a part of our shared history.
FROM there I would turn my car around and head west, back home to Colorado. That was my plan – several stitched-together dreams into one crazy quilt of a road trip. I excitedly told friends of my plan, showing my route on a map as a visual reference.
PLANNING to leave in March 2020, I made lodging reservations (friends and Airbnbs). Lodging for Big Bend fills up far in advance but I miraculously found a place – an airstream trailer – in Terlingua, the funky, hippie town of Jerry Jeff Walker fame (¡Viva Terlingua!) and the Starlight Theater – prickly pear margaritas in the hot Texas sun. I made reservations for a kayaking trip down the Rio Grande. I was set and I couldn’t wait.
AS the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh tell Her your plans. Stuff happened. In early 2020 there was a virus spreading, slowly at first, then picking up speed. As much as I tried, the reality of COVID became impossible to ignore. The world was snapping shut before I could say, “but, what about ME?” Who was I kidding? It turns out, I had indeed tempted fate. (Not that COVID was my fault.)
I woke up one day and reality had won. With tears in my eyes, I started canceling reservations, my solo road trip dream crumbling into dust. C’est la vie.
FAST forward to 2022. I did take a road trip to Big Bend and fulfilled a portion of my dream. My partner and I drove to West Texas, stayed in Marathon, and spent a week in Big Bend. It was heaven – my memories of the wide open spaces unmarred, the spiritual connection remained and the night sky had not changed (maybe a few more satellites). We stared up at the twinkling Milky Way gobsmacked by the shooting starts, while our necks stiffened. The stars were SO close. The wilderness was as beautiful and magical as it was 50 years ago (haha – maybe even 50 million years ago?). We stopped at night to see the Marfa lights (unable to positively identify anything unworldly). We saw a herd of javelinas crossing a back road outside of Marathon. We kayaked the Rio Grande, hiked the trails (Santa Elena, Casa Grande, Chisos Basin, The Window), walking carefully among the prickly pear and ocotillo cactus; tarantulas, and wild burros. We soaked in the hot springs, walked across the river to Mexico, bought beaded trinkets from Mexicans who had crossed over on horses. I had more than a few prickly pear margaritas at the Starlight, while listening to Jerry Jeff. The orange, pink and purple sunsets were stunning, the dark night skies a carpet of stars. It was pretty awesome – what dreams are made of.
FROM there we drove to Archer City and visited the “City of Books” that Larry McMurtry built. Sadly Larry had died (March 25, 2021), yet his spirit was there. Boy, was it there – in every book we looked at, touched and left with. We spoke with his lady friend who inherited Larry’s thousands of books and bookstores. She spoke of Larry with sad eyes and with such love and admiration and shared some personal stories of their friendship over the years. We walked around town, down the middle of Main Street where an actual tumbleweed rolled by, where “The Last Picture Show” was filmed. Looking back, it was kind of surreal. My pilgrimage was complete.
WE turned the car around and headed back west to Colorado. I’ll do my solo trip another time – maybe when I’m 80!
ALWAYS have a road trip in the wings, even if it’s just a dream.
Photo: c. Bob Anderson – Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park
What a great planned adventure, and one that actually took place. When I was still living in Texas, I often said that Big Bend was the place that when I moved away I would always say “Damn, I wish I had gone.” I’ve been gone from Texas now for 35 years. I think often that I missed a great natural wonder.
As a side note, we just booked a 9 day trip to Tuscon and will be staying in an airstream b&b in a huge park with “spa” amenities. We’ve never been to Tuscon and thought it would be a good place to expand our horizons, both culinarily and topographically. Great stroy.
Thanks, Gary. It’s never too late to go to BBNP (highly recommend!)! I lived in Tucson in the early 70s (for only 9 most) but loved it and always wanted to go back. Interested in your airstream b&b (will ping you for deets). When you’re there drive down to Bisbee – if you haven’t ever been – it’s a cool town – and pretty drive.