When I was growing up in Houston in the 1960s, my kin taught me to be leery of snowbirds—folks who lived up north but who descended to our fair climes each winter to take advantage of “our” warmth and so much sunlight. We pitied them, poor weakling snowbirds—emigres, in exodus from a homeland they could not survive.
The epithet was a puzzling paradox to me, for I enjoyed journeying just a few miles west of the suburb I lived in as a child. I’d go out to the flooded rice fields of the Katy Prairie, where in winter a rippling wave of white wings pulsed like those of butterflies, with every inch of prairie occupied by wintering snow geese. Then, I cherished the geese more than the light, for I lived in the light while the geese were visitors. Now that I reside in Montana, the light is but a visitor in winter.
Out on the Katy Prairie, the geeses’ gabbling and honking sounded like applause, like joy, like life. And now I have become one. Craving sun and light in January as one might desire food or water, I am headed for an unpeopled land I hold dear—the approximate triangle formed by an imaginary dashed line between Alpine, Marfa, and Fort Davis. My home of the last 35 years lies in a similarly sized triangle on shaded inland rainforest at the opposite end of the country—the Yaak Valley in Montana, where only 150 people live year-round. It’s 97% national forest, and a group I work with—in partnership with Houston’s Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation—has been advocating for the largest and oldest trees to be protected as a climate refuge. The largest 1% of a forest’s trees can hold 50% of the forest’s carbon in secure long-term banking. That’s tons of carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.
Driving south, burning dinosaur bones, I begin to catch up with the migratory hawks. The northern harriers are ferruginous, rough-legged, red-tailed, sharp-shinned. They perch on Welcome to Wyoming and Welcome to Colorado signs. They fly alongside me, scanning the snow-free prairie below.
I reach Raton, New Mexico, at daylight. I can never pass through without thinking of Townes Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ on Raton.”
A glittering shield of frost greets me well into Texas—a town called Eden. I get a gas station coffee, but it tastes like the saltwater it is. Pumpjacks are the only things moving this morning. A herd of antelope stands improbably on the front porch of an abandoned home, as motionless as decoys.
The cold sun continues to excite the prairie’s icy diamonds, though it is the same sun that later in the day will destroy the frost.
The tiny pumpjacks are slow and listless in the cold, their angled joints and hammerhead counterweights looking like the skulls of mules or the faces of mechanical grasshoppers. I imagine their long tongues lapping at the green-black crude below. The faint brimstone whiff reminds me of how, when my family would pass through sulfurous Luling on the way up to the Hill Country on vacation, my geologist father would scoff at my dramatic gagging and say, only partly joking, “That’s the smell of money, Richard.”
What do birds think, on their long voyage through the day and the night, navigating the electrical fields we cannot see and have forgotten how to feel?
As I journey closer to the basin of light, I encounter more of the deeply imprinted elements of my childhood: the kettles of migrating hawks far above in a blue sky, as if they are gracefully spinning invisible puppet strings tied to all of us below; the grating call overhead of vast skeins of migrating sandhill cranes. An entire other plane exists above us, ancient highways traveled by otherworldly beings.
There’s a part of me that’s drawn to the Gulf Coast, but the sun and warmth I crave is closer in West Texas. I visited there occasionally when I lived in Texas, a long time ago, and occasionally return. Like a pinball, I drop southward on a series of county and farm-to-market roads, drive straight to Alpine, and check into an Airbnb called the Dragonfly Cottage, the only guest. Omicron is flaring like the gas caps being burned off the oil wells I passed up in the Panhandle. Throughout my hejira, I’ve noticed more train action, and in Alpine, there’s more jet and helicopter activity than I remember. Russia’s invading Ukraine, and I can’t help but think our armed forces are astir, doing their own tune-ups and trainings. I remember noticing this incredible pulse of activity before the start of both Gulf Wars in Iraq. It’s amazing, sometimes, what all goes on in broad daylight, yet is unnoted, uncommented upon.
A white dog basks in sunlight. I do believe there are places in the world where light bathes the human brain, ignites or illuminates it in different ways, and from that we refer sometimes, with lame generalization, to “sense of place.”
Marfa’s been written about to the moon and back—Austin Spare, or Dallas Lite, or El Paso South—though it is of course none of these things. It is only what it is. The best thing about Marfa, in my opinion, is the eating establishment Food Shark. The sandwiches are nothing fancy but so delicious. Served on a paper plate, a freshly baked baguette bun with an immense amount of smoked turkey and killer aioli, a bright red tomato slice, crisp lettuce, and a side of greasy plain potato chips glistening in the sun. I sit in the gravel courtyard while doves coo. Outlandishly cool cars that probably haven’t run in decades are parked out front—I’m particularly fond of a ’63 Dodge Dart—and my heart rate slows. When my order is ready, they call my name from the school-bus-turned-kitchen by announcing it through a little plastic children’s faux megaphone. It’s fun. Whimsy is good. I’ve missed it these last couple of years.
There’s no food scene back home in the Yaak. One tavern, where the specialty is a beer called Moose Drool. Heck, there’s barely any electricity. It’s mostly ravens, forest. I love it. But I love Food Shark, too!
I’ve been anticipating a lunch here since my last trip two years ago. But heartbreakingly, Food Shark is closed. A sagging little rope separates my dream from the reality, along with a cardboard sign where written in black Magic Marker are the words “Closed Until Not.”
You can’t write about or visit Marfa without discussing the town’s version of the Loch Ness Monster: the Marfa Lights. No less a luminary than poet W.S. Merwin explored the phenomenon with the subject of his poem “The Marfa Lights.”
Addressing Merwin’s work in The Jesuit Review, James Rorrens wrote, “He is preoccupied with the darkness that surrounds and engulfs us in the universe, and also with our fugitive but astonishing experiences of light…You cannot compel the light, he believes… All sorts of people claim to see them. But you can never be sure.”
It’s amusing how some people come looking for lights in the night, when I’m here for light’s miraculous quality at high noon.
Entering the triangle of light, one learns to quickly scan the sere sand-colored scrub and the shiny glint of the greasewood for mule deer, antelopes, jackrabbits, whatever—but then to lift one’s eyes to the fantastic, phantasmagoric pillows of cumulus and stratocumulus. Who needs light in the nighttime?
It’s been said by many that religions often begin in the desert. That the old forests are cathedrals, but that the divine originates where one can see forever.
The “Marfa’s Mystery Lights Viewing Area” sign pays homage to, according to legend, a young cowboy who first reported seeing the lights in 1883, in the rolling scrublands between Marfa and Paisano Pass. The lights have received many earnest attempts at explanation. Ghosts, of course. Aliens, duh. Another one: the reflections of occasional car lights from US 67. Lame.
I’ve been out there at night. Nothing. But I enjoy just as much gazing out at the land in the daytime, imagining and wondering. There is more of what we don’t know than what we do know. I believe the lights were likely present more in the past. I also believe that too many pilgrims, and the ceaseless unscrolling of their hunger, can make a shy or delicate or vulnerable thing—a phenomenon—go away. But I also believe such things can come back.
I wander north to Fort Davis and find it as unpeopled as ever. There are a few more “For Sale” signs, but—so unlike Montana—few traces of new home construction and speculative aspirations of affluence. Instead, just raw land, juniper, and greasewood, with some ocotillo. It’s shirt-and-jacket weather here in late January, though in the great wash of light it’s not hard to imagine how July and August will be much warmer.
Because of the variant, I won’t go to the McDonald Observatory, though I have been before and hope to again when all this settles. This is another beautiful thing about the triangle: The snow globe of clean sunlight landing here not quite like it does anywhere else on earth—due to a specific mix of altitude, topography, latitude, longitude, and aridity—conspires also to yield dark skies and clear, clean, wind-scrubbed stars at night. One is reminded there is always another world, and it’s sometimes closer than one realizes. The flip side of the Triangle of Light—a nighttime Triangle of Dark. For nearly all things need their opposite to exist, or are also composed, in some small part, of their opposite. In this case, we need just look above our heads. In these chronically uncertain days, what simple comfort it is to know and witness the steadfast clockwork regularity of the slow march of the constellations above, as if nightly a great calming occurs, a great and sensical order, even if below things skitter and fray. It’s good to have some favorite places that are at least changing at a rate slower than the rest of the world.
Will my little group in Montana be successful in establishing the country’s first climate refuge? The times demand it. Growing up in Texas has inculcated in all of us the admonition to go big. I worry that 265,000 acres is, given the urgency of things, too small. But it’s a start. And if every northern region around the world protected its oldest forests, what cool, calming breath might emanate?
It’s not just the northern border that holds the key. A tree’s a tree. Groups like Save Buffalo Bayou in Houston are working to hold on to the forests that help deflect and absorb flood wrath and store carbon in the rising heat of that concrete ecosystem. As Lady Bird Johnson once espoused the value of wildflowers, how wonderful it is to see fellow Texans espouse the carbon-storing value—the cooling value—of old and mature trees.
I appreciate the extraordinary lucidity of late-winter sun striking the facade of the Palace Theater on the broad east-facing side of Lincoln Street leading to the Presidio County Courthouse in downtown Marfa. Sure, Marfa’s curated and funky; sure, Marfa is Oz. But real human beings still love and work there, even as others pass through, hungry for something. Hungry for beauty maybe. It is no longer a small thing to know that the light cast from a dying sun 170,000 years ago is going to land on a certain place, at a certain time of year, without a whit of change.
Even the comings and goings of birds—the great, synchronized waves of migratory birds such as ducks and geese, cranes and doves, written about beautifully by John Graves—were once as seasonally common as the arrival and departure of that light. To our eye, the buttery light that falls upon the theater is no different than how it fell last year or the year before. It is the precise color and angle of light that residents would have witnessed falling upon that same space where the theater and the town were yet to be.
So, the light is still the same, and I have come, like the geese, to see it and to bathe in it, if only for a little while. Did I take it for granted when I lived in its midst—in its center? Possibly.
There’s very little public land within the triangle of light—the state and national parks lie farther south—so the light is the real wilderness. In moving north, I have traded light for land.
It might seem odd and quaint to list the Alpine Public Library as one of the must-see attractions within the triangle of light. I went there just to send a scan. A sweet library is another thing, in the unpeopled Yaak Valley, that I miss about civilization.
The day is bathed in sunlight, and the tizz in my blood is effervescent. I feel like I am the only one who can see this, feel this; that everyone else is simply walking around taking it for granted. How easy it would be for this splash of light, hurled into space long ago like a net cast into the sea, to miss the spinning speck of our blue planet.
The parking lot’s empty. I walk toward the library as if toward a portal that leads back to childhood, and, somehow, also into the future. In a land where the Marfa Lights strobe and glimmer, why not?
The broad sidewalk outside the library is decorated with pastel chalk, a phys-ed hopscotch course encouraging patrons on their way in or out to engage in a bit of play. Childhood indeed.
There’s almost no one in the library, which is immaculate. As libraries used to be back in the olden days, it’s filled with books, all neatly arranged. As the Bible verse says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” There are a few computers but mostly empty desks. A mother with her young daughter, reading to her.
There’s a used bookstore adjacent to the lobby. It’s not yet open, but what a wonderful acknowledgement of the relationship that keeps a book-and-library culture alive. Sometimes you check one out; other times you want to buy one, to own and mark and dog-ear and loan, or just to give as a gift. The best books make the best gifts.
It won’t surprise a visitor to learn the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation chose the Alpine Public Library as one of the top three small libraries in America in 2013. It has a children’s section in the center of the building and there’s an exercise program, citizenship classes, and a jail library program. There are no fines for overdue books that are returned.
It’s another dimension—a place where our relationship with time is redefined. You walk in and walk out feeling changed, no matter what age.
It’s time to return to the dreamland that is my northern life, writing fiction in the mornings and then wrestling with my government in the afternoons. North and west of Fort Davis, I drive through the cold austerity of the Davis Mountains, where bighorn crossing signs similar to the ones I see in Montana remind me that our country has a spine that travels south to north. The creeks and rivers that begin their journey up high and flow down to the green living things below are not like the veins and arteries of a living thing; they are the thing itself.
I stop and sleep in the desert north and west of El Paso, beneath cold stars, just a bit south of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It’s Jan. 28, and since the pandemic began, I’ve been craving the sight of tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, and ducks flying back to roost in reddening sun. These same birds herald the spring in Montana with exuberant, grating calls as they stalk and wade the meadows and marshes, their cries echoing off the mountains covered in snow. It’s April, usually, by the time they get to Montana.
I’m up and driving early in the big empty desert, the shape of it remarkable in the way it accepts the sun’s first rays. There are few among us who would not consider it the most beautiful part of the day.
No one knows what the future will bring. Half the country is freezing during my January trip, and the other half is baking. The West—which to my thinking begins on the Balcones Escarpment, in the arid oak-juniper grasslands—is facing its worst drought in 1,200 years. It’s warmer in Montana than it is in Texas, but at least I have found the sunlight. Is this craving related to age? “You do not have to be good,” writes Mary Oliver in her poem “Wild Geese.” “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
I get back in my little silver car and begin the rest of the long drive back north toward home. Toward a refuge that is not yet a refuge. Out of the light and back into the cool dark.