"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Trip into the Middle of Nowhere

When I first started college at UT, my knowledge of Austin consisted of the Jester Dorm, the part of campus that existed between 21st Street and 26th Street, and the Fiesta grocery store on 38th ½.  At that time, anyone who lived “off campus” might as well have resided in another world.  In 1995, Far West Boulevard truly seemed far away. 

In my senior year when I moved into an apartment on Enfield, my familiarity with the city had grown until I no longer feared such places as North Lamar and the Warehouse District.  But still, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would live south of the river and drive “all that way” to school.

After teaching for a few years, I moved into a duplex in central Austin, just north of 45th Street.  By then, I was an expert on Austin traffic and shortcuts, easily navigating the curves of 2222 and the one-way chaos of downtown.  But when people said things like, “Take Mopac until it ends and then turn left…” I became a little suspicious.  Did Loop 1 truly have an end?

Then, a year ago, I moved to far south Austin (not just south, FAR south, there’s a difference) to a house very close to that legendary end of Mopac.  And in the past few months, as I have driven down Nutty Brown Road or made my way out to the Salt Lick for some BBQ, I have gazed at those houses off the beaten path, resting comfortably on their acreage, surrounded by space and land and livestock, and I’ve wondered how it feels to be so far out?

But this week, when my husband and I took a trip to Big Bend, I got a glimpse of what secluded really means.

We left our house on Tuesday morning at 8:00AM and pulled back into our driveway at 10:40PM Friday night.  During that time, we drove 1,301 miles, passed through 12 different counties, and averaged 17 miles per gallon in our rented SUV.  (Ouch!)   

Our route took us through such towns as Sonora (where I ate a sandwich called a “Hobbit”), Marathon (where we saw a pack of javelinas), Terlingua (I highly recommend the Starlight Theater Restaurant and Bar), and Lajitas (population 621).

Throughout the journey we passed several farm houses and residences, quite literally in the middle of nowhere and each time we found ourselves asking questions like:
What kind of person chooses to live out here?
What is their day-to-day life like?
How far away is the nearest hospital?
Where do they get their milk?

Several businesses did not accept credit cards.  Our cell phones rarely had any service at all and when they did, it was unreliable.  We began filling up with gas every time the needle touched the halfway mark.

Some people would find this type of environment intolerable, or at the very least frustrating.  But I liked it.  I got used to watching for deer rather than pedestrians.  I enjoyed returning the waves of the pick-up truck drivers in the small towns.  I learned how to spot water by the vibrant green of the trees and nearby vehicles by the clouds of dust behind them.  I soaked up the horizon like a sponge and reveled in the emptiness of the landscape.

I didn’t want to come home.

Don’t get me wrong-- I am not trying to suggest that I want to pack up my city life and buy a ranch on the Rio Grande.  I don’t have what it takes, and I know it.   But I could have used another day or two in a place where directions are given by landmarks and you can stop in the middle of the road to take a picture without having to worry about being in someone’s way.  When we got back home, our neighborhood felt a little close, and I found myself yearning for more sky.

Things you should know before heading off into the middle of nowhere:

When you drive from Austin to Big Bend, the last Starbucks you will encounter is in…Austin.

If you see a plume of smoke rising and twirling in the desert, don’t immediately assume grass fire.  It may just be a dust devil, which will casually hop across the road in front of you and continue on its eerie way.

When starting out on a hike, determine how much water you think you will need.  Then double it.

When asking for directions to a restaurant, you may hear such things as “We don’t have many addresses out here” and “If you hit the pirate ship you’ve gone too far.”

Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself clutching a baseball-sized rock while hiking at dusk, just in case a mountain lion appears and you have to (as the signs instructed) “appear large and throw things”.


  1. I really enjoy reading your blog. Unfortunately my facebook mentality has me looking for the Like button every time I read something funny. Your trip to Big Bend sounded amazing and I had a Parent Trap flash back when you mentioned the mountain lions. I hope you didn't have to throw anything.

  2. Thanks! :) Nope. No rock-throwing necessary. We kept hoping to see something exciting, but equally hoped it would be from a safe distance.

  3. I'm headed there next week. Can't wait! We already have plans to go to the Starlight. 5 days of hiking, exploring, watching and learning.