I step out of my rental car. Into the hot sun. I pick my way through some prickly pear cactus to stand next to a barbed wire fence strung together with gnarled mesquite “posts.” A giant vulture perches on the other side of the road. It stares at me with its red face and featherless neck. The slight breeze carries a hint of something scorched. The utter silence and isolation of the place is heightened by the distant calls of some bird. I pour some water from my bottle in the palm of my hand and splash it over my face and stare out across the rock-strewn and sun-bleached landscape that southwardly grades to the fringes of a distant mountain range.
And that is when it comes to me. I am actually here, in “the West”, amidst a rocky terrain of prickly pear, spiky lechuguilla, creosote bushes, yucca plants and thorny ocotillo. I am here, in the place I have longed to be all my life.
The previous night, sitting on the edge of my lumpy bed in my room in Marathon, Texas -- listening to the wailing of the coyotes in the distance and an old-fashioned windmill chuffing its stubborn sails in the wind -- I had leafed through one of the park brochures I grabbed in the hotel lobby. I was so excited that I did not care that, come morning, I would drive into the scorching-hot of Big Bend National Park, alone, without sunscreen, sunglasses, my EpiPen (I am allergic to bee stings), or other common-sense-stuff-for-three-digit heat.
For as long as I can remember I had dreamed of visiting the West. But after my husband walked out on his family when our sons were toddlers, I had only been able to give my dream fleeting thoughts at most. Usually those thoughts came to me when I became overwhelmed -- with trying to keep up with the cooking, cleaning and bill paying, keep my old car running, find decent babysitters and nurture four rambunctious boys after a hot day working in a dirty factory. But my wistful longing for the West was not only a gesture of wanting to escape the burdens of too much responsibility; it was mostly a gesture of wanting to be where I felt I should have been born in the first place.
It has always seemed to me that I was born out of place and time. As a young child I galloped on a fine but imaginary pinto pony across pretend arroyos and canyons. As an adult, western movies caused me to long for prairies steeped with sage and carpets of blooming cacti. It was not until I went to college and read The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham that I began to realize that my strange sense of being misplaced in time and place was shared by others. In part, Maugham wrote: “I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known.”
This intrigue for or draw to the West did not always wholly occupy my thoughts of course. There were long periods when I was so busy with life that it did not cross my mind at all. But it was always lingering just below my subconscious, waiting to surface, usually when I was overwhelmed with being a single mom, or when I happened to see a picture or read of the vast and rolling plains of West Texas, Colorado, Arizona, or had just come out of the bitter cold of a Midwest winter. I began to read up on the history of the West, specifically the region of the Big Bend National Park. I studied its fauna, flora, and geography. After my sons were grown and gone, however, and I had a little extra money and the time to travel, I lacked the courage; though I longed in the worst way to visit the West, or Big Bend, I harbored great doubts about driving around out there alone. Yet, being a person who always likes to follow her own agenda, I did not wish to deal with the needs and wishes and perhaps complaints of a companion. If I went, I knew it would have to be alone.
In 2009 I finally went. Alone. About this, I still had anxieties, but I felt that if I did not take the chance now I never would. After flying to Houston to visit family, and driving around west central Texas for a couple of days, still fretful of all that could happen to me, staying nights in local motels and spending days viewing towns that, except for cultural and geographical differences, were much like any other American town, I quickly saw that the West no longer existed. Not in the way I wanted it to anyway. Small towns like Comanche, Santa Anna, Ballinger, though interesting, charming even, were not the remote, plains-stretching-away-to-an-endless-horizon type of places I longed to see (though in Big Lake, at a Texaco, I did run into some real cowboys, spurs and all, pumping gas into a large white truck with a horse trailer behind).
On the third day, over breakfast at a small café outside Fort Stockton, I opened my map and saw that I had looped around western Texas until I was not all that far from Big Bend National Park. I gulped down my breakfast, pushed aside my remaining road-travel anxieties, and headed straight south to Marathon, Texas.