Ciara and Meg overlooking the Big Bend landscape.

Ciara and her friend Meg on the South Rim Trail of Big Bend National Park.

I wanted to spend my 30th birthday in West Texas, sipping tequila under dark skies and greeting the next decade in the desert. Some friends and I hatched a plan: We’d spend a couple nights in Marfa and then camp for two more at Big Bend National Park. I treated myself by booking a yurt at El Cosmico, where in the past I had just paid to pitch my own tent. The journalism fellowship I had moved from Austin to Colorado for was ending, and I was excited to again hike my favorite trails in the Chisos Mountains.

Then my life changed. My dad died, and my relationship of seven years ended. And when I packed up my car to return to Austin, I was bound for a friend’s couch, not the home I had left behind. Because I had quit my newspaper job for the fellowship, I was unemployed, trying to cobble together furniture for a bedroom that would open up later that summer. I had a lead on a bed: The grandmother of a friend of a friend had recently died, and her old spring mattress was available. Yes, I said. I was interested.

I no longer cared about my birthday. I didn’t feel like celebrating. But friends were flying in from Portland and Philadelphia. Others in town had already taken time off work and made reservations in Marfa. I packed my bags and scraped for something resembling enthusiasm. I just felt sad.

A martyr of my own misery, I drove all of the seven hours to Marfa, only waking my sleeping friends when we stopped at the Dairy Queen in Junction. Somewhere between there and Presidio County, though, my heart didn’t feel so heavy. The landscape flattened, and the colors softened as the sun set. After we pulled into El Cosmico’s parking lot, some friends who had beat us there popped open some beer.

For my birthday the next day, we took a daytime tour and participated in a solar viewing at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains. We had lunch at a Mexican restaurant between there and Balmorhea pool, where we waited out the afternoon heat. Someone cooked dinner at El Cosmico’s outdoor community kitchen that night, and someone else presented a homemade cake. By the time my photo was taken holding a sparkler from a pile of fireworks, I looked happy.

A group of friends looking over a Big Bend sunset.

Ciara and her group of friends on a trail near Rio Grande Village campground in Big Bend.

I remember the rest of the weekend as a joyful montage: swinging from hammocks at the campground, hiking along the South Rim trail in Big Bend National Park, and splaying out on the ground to look at the stars and share some deep life thoughts courtesy of a couple margaritas. In some ways, I can imagine looking back on the coronavirus pandemic like this. Against a backdrop of grief, uncertainty, and seismic change, the good is extra good. And acts of kindness have a greater impact.

In the months since people started cordoning themselves off, friends have dropped off books, bagels, cake, alcohol, and homemade tortilla dough. One mailed a letter, another sent a face mask, and someone else delivered a hoya, a potted clipping of a plant her father had tended since he was in college. A dog my boyfriend and I adopted has infused each day with goofiness.

It would all be welcome in ordinary times, whatever those are. But gratitude blooms from low expectations, when the worst is interrupted.


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“My Favorite Texas Trip” is a series highlighting memorable travel experiences from Texas Highways’ writers and readers.
Read the rest of the series here.

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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