The Airstream Adventures, Part I: Marfa or Bust
We were barreling south on I-25 doing 70 when we felt it: a weird shuffling sensation in the tires. The truck hitched slightly to the right and began to decelerate. I looked over at Steve to see if he’d put his foot on the brake, but he was looking at me with an equally baffled expression, and that’s when I knew we were really in trouble.
“Oh CRAP!” we said in unison. This was going to suck.
It’s never convenient to get a flat tire on a road trip, but it’s especially trying when you’re towing a 21-foot vintage Airstream trailer for only the second time in your life, and you have two young, sleep-deprived children and a deaf, three-legged dog in the backseat, the baby is teething, and the spare tire is as old as the trailer. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly an auspicious start to our maiden Airstream voyage.
We’d acquired the trailer year ago on a lark. My husband, Steve, traded it for gardening work with one of his clients, who’d parked it outside her barn, scuffed but intact. But just because no money exchanged hands didn’t mean we were immune from buyer’s remorse. No sooner had we towed it home then I began to regret the gleaming behemoth squatting in our driveway. “We’re not trailer people, we’re tent people!” I lamented, picturing a future of paved RV parks and our tent relegated forever to the garage. That was it. We’d never see the backcountry again.
Hysterics aside, the 1961 Airstream was ours—there was no getting around it. Literally. It took up so much space in our driveway that there was barely room for Steve to park his pickup. The previous owner had proudly showed off the previous owners’ thorough renovation, which turned out to be not so thorough. The peach-colored interior paint was peeling, the stained sisal rug did nothing to mask the odor of moldy linoleum, and the ornate Moroccan/Casbah theme had to go.
As we fantasized about a facelift—a fresh coat of white paint, cork floor, new fabric—we found ourselves getting more attached to the silver hulk. In the summer, I checked into the Airstream for an emergency staycation right in our own driveway, when our daughters wouldn't sleep and I desperately needed to. We told ourselves that once we spiffed it up, we could use it as a guest house—just like in Dwell Magazine! All fall, it sat there, immobile, a permanent fixture. It had become the landmark we used when people couldn’t find our house. "Look for the Airstream," we'd say, "that's us." By early winter, it hadn’t moved an inch, but the renovation had begun and we started plotting our maiden voyage.
There was really only one choice: Marfa. The town of about 2,000 sits in the arid grasslands of West Texas, surrounded by sprawling, empty ranchland and, well, not much else. Marfa doesn’t have hiking trails, mountains, or a river, but it does have Donald Judd. For years, the renowned mid-century artist commuted back and forth from Manhattan to Marfa, where the monochromatic prairie grass provided the perfect backdrop for his minimalist sculptures. Before he died, in 1994, Judd created a spare museum in a bunch of renovated army barracks on the edge of town. The Chinati Foundation has become a bucket-list layover for serious culture rats from both coasts, and Marfa a trendy arts outpost, one part retro, the other part mod. If there was one place we were guaranteed to feel at home in our dinged-up mid-century mobile home, it was Marfa.
But here’s the hitch: Marfa is 500 miles from Santa Fe. If all went according to plan, it would take us about nine hours to drive there, including a stopover for the night in Truth or Consequences. The distance didn't seem insane to us until we creaked out of the driveway last Thursday afternoon. Then, within minutes, we realized that when you’re dealing with a 50-year-old trailer, nothing really ever goes according to plan. In the first half an hour, the Airstream’s screen door blew open three times. Each time, we had to pull over and try to tighten the latches; when that didn’t work, Steve used some gardening wire to clamp it shut like a glorified twist-tie. (It worked, for a while.) Then, south of Socorro, the shredded tire. As Steve lay on his back on the shoulder, with cars hurtling past at 80, trying to bolt on a raggedy old spare that looked like it could implode any minute, it seemed entirely possible—and possibly even desirable—that we might never make it to Marfa.
By the time we limped into T or C, the sun was setting and our 20-month-old had been screaming nonstop for 20 minutes. We pulled over at the edge of town to retrieve a milk bottle and, in our rush to leave, bottomed out in the parking lot, tearing off what appeared to be a crucial piece of PVB pipe attached to the toilet. Niiice. That’s when we noticed that at some point in the last 150 miles, the Airstream’s back window had fallen out and shattered, leaving only a screen and a few shards of glass. If we didn't feel like crying, we'd be laughing. We drove in circles through the historic downtown, the wrong way down one-way streets, looking for a place to park for the night. A block from the Rio Grande, a shabby little sign beckoned: Artesian Bathhouse and Trailer Court. The place was neatly lined with trailers that had clearly seen better days, but there was one empty spot, right up front. Like it or not, we were home.
Back in the 1920s and 30s, T or C was known as Hot Springs, a booming healing mecca with healing mineral springs bubbling up right under downtown. But by mid-century, the steady stream of tourists had begun to taper off, and a much-hyped PR stunt to rename the town for the popular TV game show didn’t do much to reverse its fortunes. These days, T or C is a weedy, decrepit place with rundown motels, sporting retro neon signs and concrete baths that look like they haven’t been updated since 1950, a handful of restaurants, and a lot of empty storefronts.
Maybe there’s something in the water—well, there’s definitely something in the water—but for all its scruffiness, T or C is weirdly beguiling, too. For a while, a few years back, it seemed like it might become the next Marfa, a parched desert oasis attracting big-city eccentrics and artists, with its own natural food shop/juice bar, and hipster yoga studio in a funky old church. But I guess word never got out, because—judging by Artesia’s parking lot—it’s biggest demographic isn't urban art tourists but full-time trailer folk with a hankering for hot springs.
No sooner had we’d rumbled in then a leggy, bearded cowboy name Bill wandered out of the office to greet us. We must have looked as crazed as we felt because he sized us up and drawled, “Looks like you need a soak.” Artesia’s hot pools were closed, he explained, but he’d be happy to open them for us once we got settled in. After backing the trailer into its parking spot and plugging it in, we submerged in a gigantic concrete bathtub in a windowless room styled like a Soviet gulag. The water was hot and odorless, and Bill had left a couple inflatable rings, so the girls bobbed around while Steve and I each downed a beer and tried to put the nightmare of the afternoon behind us.
Trailer courts are really just glorified parking lots with electrical outlets and, if you’re lucky, rickety picnic tables. This we discovered as soon as we emerged from the bathhouse and saw that a camper truck had wedged itself in next to our Airstream, so close that, through an open window, we could almost reach out and touch it. I pitied the person inside who’d have to listen to us try to wrangle two girls to bed, but we soldiered on anyway, unfolding the Airstream’s two “beds” and propping the baby’s inflatable Go Crib on the larger bed next to her sister. We tucked the girls in, shut the door, sat in the darkness and prayed for quiet.
Sleep, when it finally came, was mercifully deep for all of us, and we woke just after sunrise, Steve and I crammed into the small bed up front, to the happy giggling of two girls not used to sleeping in the same room, let alone the same bed. But there was no time to laze around in our aluminum cocoon: If we had any hope of making it to Marfa, we were going to have to pony up for new tires. Thankfully, T or C has cornered the market on tire shops, and two new ones later, the Airstream was ready roll. The question was, were we?
The trailer had become an albatross around our neck, and the way I saw it, we had three options: Forge onward to Marfa with Airstream in tow, cut our losses and “camp” someplace closer, like White Sands National Monument, or—and I had been secretly fantasizing about this all night—unhitch the trailer in T or C and go to Marfa without it. As the guy behind the wheel, Steve had been suffering the brunt of the Airstream’s abuse, so I was surprised when he said, somewhat grudgingly, “Let’s stick with the plan.” But as he turned to get in the truck, he grumbled, “As soon as we get back to Santa Fe, we’re putting this thing on Craigslist.”