The Airstream Adventures, Part II: Welcome to Trailer Town!
Texas is so vast it makes New Mexico feel as crowded as wall-to-wall suburbs back in Jersey. Two hours after leaving Truth or Consequences, we crossed the state line north of El Paso and saw a sign: “Beaumont: 831 miles.” How is it even possible that a single state could be so wide? Just across the highway, the cramped houses of Juarez, Mexico, seemed to sag into the ground beneath lopsided tin roofs.
We had 150 miles to go until Marfa, and soon we left El Paso behind and were engulfed by an austere landscape, lonely ranch gates the only sign of life. Miraculously, the Airstream tires were holding, the door hadn't blown open since we crossed into Texas, and the only thing broken besides the back window was the ancient AM radio antenna, now bent over and nearly dragging on the highway. Compared to the previous day's ordeal, this ranked as a huge success.
With 30 miles to go, we blasted through the outskirts of Valentine, a town of about 100, if that. “There was the Prada–Marfa store!” Steve said as the fashion icon’s black-and-white logo whizzed past my window. The store’s not actually a store, but a wry art installation and cultural commentary on the stylization of an otherwise dusty West Texas ranch town. I thought about telling Steve to turn the Airstream around so I could take a picture, but then I contemplated the horrors that might unleash, and I kept my mouth shut.For the past five hours—well, make that 24—I’d been wondering why on earth we were hauling our derelict Airstream all the way to Texas when we weren’t even RV people to begin with. The barren scenery out the window wasn’t doing much to reassure me, and the whole notion of artsy sophisticates migrating all the way from New York to Marfa (closest airport: El Paso) seemed like total lunacy. But I’ll admit it, as shallow as it sounds, at the sight of an international fashion brand—even an ironic one—I started to relax. Maybe Marfa would live up to its hype after all. Maybe, if we were lucky, we wouldn’t be spending the weekend in an asphalt trailer court.
Marfa, when we got there, was glowing. At five PM, the sun was still high in the sky but the day was drawing in on itself and the prairie grass looked lovely and tawny, not drought-stricken and brown, the way it had just a few miles outside of town. Granted, part of this was probably the Chinati Effect: bathed in the light of a super-chic world-renowned minimalist art hotspot, everything looks cool. But there’s something genuinely magical about Marfa’s landscape, too: Though nearly bare of trees, this is not the harsh, cacti-studded desert that dominates New Mexico and points west, but a far gentler, more welcoming prairie. Texas felt like a continent unto itself, and already it was beginning to blow my mind.
I’d called ahead to El Cosmico, a 18-acre compound just south of Marfa's main drag, where guests can stay in canvas safari tents, two teepees, four vintage renovated trailers, or their own tents, to see if we could BYO Airstream. They didn’t have hook-ups for us, but when we pulled in, they directed us to an empty field adjacent to the guest lounge, where sunburned hipsters were clacking away on laptops and drinking microbrews. The field was scrubby, more dirt than grass, but it was all our own, and compared to the Artesia, it was paradise.
The Imperial Palace, one of El Cosmico's restored trailers [photo: Katie Arnold]
Since opening in 2009, El Cosmico (created by the same woman who redid the nearby Thunderbird Motel) has Marfasized the camping experience: It’s just rustic enough to give the young, carefree (read: childless) culture pilgrims an excuse to break out their sleeping bags, but boutique enough to sport low-slung leather couches in the lounge, designer bathhouses, vintage town bikes for rent, and an artful trio of hammocks strung beneath a few skinny cottonwoods. Fortunately, it pulls off its Brooklyn-goes-backcountry vibe without being pretentious, and even though we were the only ones with loud, dusty children and a three-legged dog in tow, we felt right at home.
Marfa has an impressive number of restaurants for a town so small, but on the Friday night of Easter weekend, the first two places we tried—Mexican tacos and Texas BBQ—were closed. We wound up at Pizza Foundation, a converted gas station with an outdoor terrace and, it turned out, a two-hour wait for a pie. What?! Clearly the New York influence hadn’t rubbed off on Marfa’s dining scene yet, but we took a table anyway and ordered a couple salads while they managed to rustle up four slices of cheese pizza (thin crust and delicious, and so worth the wait; for speedier eats, we were advised to call our order in by 4 PM next time). At the next table, a family with four blonde boys, ages 2 to 9, had recently arrived from London by way of Manhattan to spend a week in Marfa. They’d been horseback riding and were planning to spend several days at Big Bend National Park, about three hours away, but not before they checked into El Cosmico’s “wigwams” for a couple of nights.
Airstreams are, by their very nature, compact. Ours has an interior living space of about 100 square feet, and when we unfolded the cushioned benches into beds, we were left with a few measly feet of leg room. (This is one occasion when traveling with very small children and a large dog with only three legs is actually an advantage.) But rather than feeling claustrophobic, the Airstream was beginning to feel cozy. As a fat Good Friday full moon rose right out our front window, we nixed the baby crib and put both girls to sleep, head to toe, on the front bed. With the Brooklyn cool kids camping at a safe distance in their pup tents, it didn’t matter how long or loudly our little ones fussed. We closed the door, cracked a couple of beers, and parked ourselves outside in camp chairs in the still-warm evening while the moon rose high over West Texas.
Over the course of the next 36 hours, we transformed our scrappy Airstream into a miniscule mobile home-away-from-home. It wasn’t hard. Waking in a cushy double bed to the sound of giggling girls a few feet away, cooking eggs and coffee on an actual stove, and sitting down at our own breakfast table with cushioned benches and Bob Dylan on the iPad—this was luxury compared to our usual camping trips. There were no mountains to climb, nothing remotely strenuous on our agenda (unless you count the drive back—and because our PTSD from the drive down was still fresh, we did), nothing to do but bask in the glory of being in Marfa with a vintage trailer all our own.
Things got even more civilized when we showed up for our two-hour tour of the Chinati Foundation. The tours, which cost $20, are the biggest game in town, and offer visitors a close-up look the understated works of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and John Chamberlain. I was skeptical about bringing two kids with the combined attention span of less than our dog, but our tour guide, a bearded, down-to-earth ex-New Yorker in Solomon trail runners, assured us that people did it all the time. “Just don’t let them touch the aluminum boxes,” he warned.
I wish I could say I understood what Donald Judd’s 100 mill aluminum boxes (each one with the same exterior dimensions, but unique interiors) were meant to represent, but I was so busy trying to keep Maisy from smearing her sticky fingers all over their glossy surfaces that it was hard to concentrate on the art. Nonetheless, the sheer enormity of the restored artillery sheds, with their utilitarian concrete floors, brick walls, and huge vertical expanses of glass, was impressive, and we had enough time wandering among the boxes to notice how the light changed and reflected differently on each one. Later, we set the girls loose to run through the six barracks that housed Dan Flavin’s neon art, shafts of dazzling blue, orange, and yellow light in otherwise cool, dark buildings. In another life, I would have lingered, but the art was so subtle and the girls so not subtle, that I was just glad to be all together on sunny spring day, watching the wind blow the prairie grass sideways and imagining what it must have been like to make this stark landscape home, as Donald Judd had, long before Marfa was on the map.
By then, the girls were getting rowdy, so we excused ourselves from the Chamberlain exhibit—sculptures made of tangled, salvaged steel—and bee lined to Squeeze Marfa for lunch. The closet-size café sits kiddy corner from the courthouse, and on a Saturday afternoon, its tiny walled terrace was packed with visitors, so we grabbed a table inside and ordered up a round of fruit smoothies, fresh-squeezed juices, and chicken salad sandwiches.
We’d only been in town 12 hours, but already we were starting to recognize people. In a place as small as Marfa, with a draw as big as Chinati, everyone’s on the same program, more or less. Most visitors hit up a second art tour, of Donald Judd’s studio and home, each afternoon at 4, but I’d forgotten to reserve ahead, so we opted for a siesta and a stint at the local playground (north of the railroad tracks, east of the courthouse) instead. By late afternoon, the clouds were building and it looked like Marfa might get its first real rain since October, and as the wind picked up, we headed back to the Chinati Foundation to wander among Judd’s Untitled Works in Concrete—the only exhibit on the property that you can visit without a guide. The 15 stalwart rectangular structures were striking, strung out in the blowing grass, but the brooding clouds and stiff spring breeze kicking up dust devils felt like the real deal: true, all-natural, effortless art.
It did rain for a little while, just enough to wet the dust and bathe El Cosmico in a surreal blue-green light. We didn’t want to miss a minute, so we stocked up at the local grocery, the Get Go, and whipped up our first dinner in the trailer, while the girls played dirt soccer and did laps on their bikes and pushing the baby stroller. At rest in its field, the horrors of the road mostly behind us, the Silver Minnow was no longer the problem child it had been. It was official: We were falling in love with our little trailer. Contentment in an Airstream (at least one that’s not disintegrating) comes simple and cheap.
In the morning, after our first annual trailer trash Easter egg hunt, we packed the kids and dog and the trailer, battened down the hatches as tightly as we could, and pointed the truck north toward the Davis Mountains. We’d decided to bypass El Paso’s traffic and take the long way home, up a narrow mountain road past the McDonald Observatory, north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and into New Mexico south of Carlsbad.
Already we were feeling a little melancholy about leaving Marfa and our new minimalist lifestyle behind, but we knew we’d be back (next time, with three-day detour to Big Bend). But even better, we didn’t have to say goodbye to our Airstream. It would be there, for better or worse, and hopefully in one piece, all the way back to Santa Fe. And, if all goes according to plan, we won’t be putting it on Craigslist after all. Because here’s the best part: Spending quality time together crammed in a trailer didn’t make us crazy; it brought us closer.
And that, my friends, is what I’d call a perfect family vacation.