If New York is the city that never sleeps, and Los Angeles the place where dreams come true, then the little old town of Marfa, Texas is where everyone’s either asleep or dreaming the day away.
I’m from Houston, born and raised. I’ve been to San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, New Braunfels, Galveston, Corpus Christi, Boerne... . Let’s just say I’ve seen a LOT of Texas. I’m well aware that everyone outside of Texas looking in has a picture in his or her mind’s eye of what the entire state looks like (insert your favorite Spaghetti Western movie here). And I know that after spending my formative years here, nobody duels in the dirt road between the saloon and the general store. The only mustangs you see are the handiwork of Henry Ford’s bright idea, big and loud and usually red with a racing stripe or something. Sure, out in central Texas, what we call the ‘Hill Country,’ there are tiny towns like Gruene with a country dance hall that still throws down like it’s 1878 when it was first built, but even then the rest of the town has adapted and evolved over the past couple centuries. Not Marfa. If you ever wanted to experience a town frozen in time, look no further than Marfa. Thank goodness you don’t have to look further, because getting from Houston to Marfa already takes a good 600 miles. Everything just has to be bigger in Texas…
The I’s of Texas are Upon You
So I hopped on I-10 with the downtown Houston skyline in my review mirror and did what we Americans have been known to do: headed west. I cut through Katy and Sugarland, blocks of strip malls and car lots on either side of the highway that vary so little from where I first left that the only people who don't refer to the districts as the ‘Greater Houston Area’ are those who physically live in them. Eventually the multi-acre Bass Pro Shops and a Rooms-to-Go warehouse that could legitimately house half of the USC campus (and probably furnish it all twice over) were behind me as I continued my trek across the relatively tamed west. Sure, that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like ‘Wild Wild West,’ but at this point the wildest thing I’d seen during my trip was a garish jacked-up King Ranch pickup with tinted windows and a blue flame paint job struggle to pull off onto a tiny road shoulder at the behest of a cop who apparently shared my sentiments on the dangers of weaving through traffic in a pedestrian monster truck.
It wasn’t until I pulled back onto the highway after a pit stop in Schulenburg—about halfway between Houston and San Antonio for the cartographically uninitiated—that civilization gave way to grassy hills and stretches of farmland. Fast food chains and gas stations still dotted the landscape every third exit or so, but the shift from industry was tangible. Residential communities with the same house copied and pasted 30 times and a name that always had to do with a body of water gave way to picturesque barns and sheds and windmills and stables. I still to this day couldn’t tell you why hay is best served to cows in bale form, but I’ve seen enough of both for a dozen lifetimes. The roads seemed to get stretched like taffy, thinner and longer as the lanes went down from six to two and the seas of grass and endless rows of tilled earth melted together. A gas station became a novelty, and a Whataburger a welcome haven from the dangers of hunger and monotony that accompany long drives.
After about 4 hours I breach the limits of San Antonio, where it was explained to me upon my first visit when I was 10 years old, “there are more Josés here than Joeys.” To this day I haven’t come up with a better way to illustrate the Mexican-American dynamic shift once you get anywhere south or west of the Alamo. I didn’t stop there, as much as I wanted to visit the famous river-walk and enjoy a perfect complement of authentic Chicano recipe and FDA approved ingredients. But I did come to a crossroads about three hours later in Sheffield: cut down to near the border town Langtry like Llewelyn Moss after he got chased down the Rio Grande, or keep heading west on I-10 to Marfa. To be perfectly honest I missed the actual crossroads, and only considered Langtry after I found out Marfa was still another couple hours out. But hey, if it was a good enough representation for the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation of the book in 2007 (not to mention like 4 Academy Awards) then it was good enough for me! So I press forward, finally taking my first turn in the last seven hours off I-10 onto I-67 and I-90 shortly thereafter.
Marfa, Marfa, Marfa
Finally, after eight and a half hours on the road, I reach Marfa, Texas. Immediately I could see what the Coen Brothers had; you couldn’t find a better freeze frame of relaxed, rural Texas if you tried. Marfa is a wonderful blend of Spanish clay tile-roofed homes and long, squat, rustic houses of old brick and stone. Paint is chipped, dust is everywhere, and I actually saw a cartoonishly large tumbleweed skip across the hard-packed dirt seconds after getting out of the car. It was perfect. Ever since leaving Houston it felt as though I was taking an exodus from busy city life to seek out what the rest of the world saw as Texas, and I found it in Marfa. Cacti as tall as buildings, bleached-white longhorn skulls as wall art; it’s a town surrounded by peaceful nothingness. What I hadn’t realized I would find during my travel was the near tangible slowing of time as I went further and further west. From the roads stretching and blending to the visible wear and tear on the few existing dots of humanity between the hills and plains, time and progress felt like a rainstorm rumbling from east to west that I was slowly outrunning, until I finally hit a place that hadn’t seen rain in years (both metaphorically and literally, again everything was so dusty). McCarthy compounds this feeling by using little to no punctuation, especially not commas. There aren’t quotation marks in the dialogue, and Bell’s narrative monologue is often written like a steady stream of consciousness. The book is so relaxed in the slow molasses of southern drawl that McCarthy doesn’t even tell you what pace to go by.
Even so, the rain will soon make its way past El Paso and wash away what’s left of pure cowboy culture. That to me is what Sheriff Bell’s exasperated lament is all about: finding your identity, your place in life, something you’re good at; only to have it become outdated and obsolete in front of your eyes. Horseback and six-shooters are replaced with 4-wheel drive trucks and automatic weaponry. Towns are no longer ‘not big enough for the two of us,’ let alone tens of hundreds of thousands of us. Cities swell and the globe shrinks, and a Sheriff just can’t hack it alone, no matter how many deputies he has. The Cowboy culture is rearing his steed to ride off into the sunset, and it’s simply a matter of time until the credits role and all we’ll have left are narrative homages in movies and novels. “But wait!” you say, “What about classic Texas things like rodeos? They’re cowboy as all get out!” I’m sorry to say that even rodeos, the pinnacle of celebration for surviving and thriving in the Wild West, has been swept up by the flash floods of the new millennium.
The Houston Rodeo is the largest of its kind in the world, with over 2.5 million attendants just this past year. It’s a renaissance affair and involves a real nuisance of a fair alongside stadium-packed country concerts and a prestigious livestock show. There’s an average of 1000 light bulbs stuck out of every ride there, from the ferris wheel to the classical vomit comet to booths where you toss rings and pop balloons with darts. Every food that could possibly be fried and some that shouldn’t—looking at you deep fried ice cream—was served up battered and on a stick. The concerts have huge projector screens and pyrotechnics and artists that sing about the hard working blue-collar man while they make a million dollars that night. Every square inch of the grounds and every second of the events has been recorded in some form or fashion and put on social media.
McCarthy’s sheriff, wise man, and one of the last remaining relics of the old ways Ed Tom Bell said that. When Sheriff Bell speaks of technology, I’m pretty sure he was referring to the progression of weapons and equipment that criminals have and not selfie-sticks with GoPro’s stuck to them. He’s more likely referring to the Mexican drug cartels’ activity ramping as their resources grew far faster than he could keep up with, and not how the world is seen these days through a smart phone screen. Still, I believe there’s an overarching truth to the sentiment of being passed up by the progress of the world around you; a feeling that persists with Bell throughout the novel and reaches into today’s incredibly tech-centric lifestyle. He’s an outlier, a sort of human anachronism that can’t find a place he feels he fits in because to be in the ‘right’ place you first have to be in the right time, and he’s well behind with no signs of catching up. And how could you blame him when the cornerstone of cowhand skillsets and wrangler prowess has been stripped down to this…
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Kendall County Fair Rodeo
Yep, you saw that right. Parents are happily volunteering their children to be stuck on a sheep and told to hold on for dear life. It’s called “Mutton Busting.” And yet somehow this is one of the most authentic rustic rodeo roots events left, because it actually incorporates animal handling and guts. Compare that to a real rodeo, like the Kendal County Fair and Rodeo near New Braunfels. Now there’s a rodeo! Calf roping, bull wrangling, racing each other on shovels pulled by horseback; it’s a revel of entertainment and competition that harkens directly to the necessary skills ranch hands have cultivated. Places like this are one of the last bastions of real cowboy showmanship: a competitive space for true country boys to put their calf roping and bull wrangling skills to the test. A place where the stories come from scars and bruises and mud caked on your boots, not Instagram likes from your blown-out recording of the Keith Urban concert. Perhaps that’s why the folks in these towns prefer no to rush; they’re in so hurry to catch up to the rest of the over-sharing world. If only old Ed could have seen it, he’d know that there are still places like Terrell and Kendall counties that haven’t yet uprooted their cultural origins.
The Good, The Bad, and the Moss
That’s the ‘Invincible Mr. Anton Chigurh’ wonderfully summarizing the nature of the illegal cross-border drug trade. Of course, he’s referring to a quarter he flipped to decide whether he murdered the cashier that had handed it to him in the first place, but still. (Spoilers, the cashier chose heads and managed to keep his.) When it comes to trafficking drugs from Mexico into the states, McCarthy’s three main characters represent the good, the bad, and the poor soul who stumbled into the money. Sheriff Bell is of course the avatar of the US law enforcement, and McCarthy pulls no punches in expressing his uselessness in the situation to the point where Bell is continuously beleaguering how he’s a step behind the unfolding events and is too slow to keep the pace. More than that, there’s a clear hesitation in his actions…
“Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I don’t want to confront him. I know he's real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I won’t do it again”
That prophet of destruction is none other than Anton Chigurh, one of the creepiest and yet most straightforward villains I’ve ever encountered. He cuts through the slow, roundabout speech mannerisms of the people he encounters. He has neither the time nor the patience for things that do not suit his express mission: to punch holes into people’s heads with his air powered cattle gun on behalf of those who have hired him. Yet he possesses all of the meticulous patience in the world, usually when it comes to following up on his word to punch more holes into more people’s heads. He is a human plague, embodying the merciless and near lackadaisical killing attitude the surrounds the infamous drug cartels of Mexico. It’s the poor people like Llewelyn Moss—an all-American Vietnam veteran that loves his wife even if he has an odd way of showing it—that represent the everyman in the US that get hooked one way or another into the dangers of the cartels or the drugs and money they launder. Chigurh and the cartels hold the symbolic silenced shotgun, and families like the Mosses are the ones who bite the bullet.