White Sands National Monument : By Danielle

 

I remember scanning over google earth on my phone on our way into the south west admiring the satellite images of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico. When I saw White Sands National monument I thought it was a glitch on Google’s part. A beaming white patch in the middle of brown, black earth. Zoom in, and it only looks more strange. When we go to national parks I try not to study the pictures online too hard as I like to be surprised. Nothing could have prepared us for this unreal alternative world. White Sands National Monument has been protected and recognized since 1933.  It is the largest deposit of gypsum in the world. With no ocean to escape to, the gypsum runs off of the surrounding San Andres and Sacramento Mountains via water, and collects in a lake bellow and eventually blows southwest creating a massive dune field. The park, in rock time, is new and still changing. 

     We decided to head straight to the park once the trailer was settled in Alamogordo. We borrowed some saucer sleds from the campground host, because apparently the sand was sled-able. The sun started to set and the wind was relentless as we drove past the park gates. That didn’t deter us. The white dunes start almost abruptly, like a giant emptied his shoe after a beach day. We yelped and awed at the sites driving in. I kept expecting to see ocean, but instead the horizon kept opening up to what seemed to be an endless sliding landscape of blinding white, until the horizon finally met the distant mountains.

    “There are people on the dunes”, I said leaning half way out of the car window. I couldn't believe you were allowed to climb on them. We were used to fragile beach dunes, perfect sand and grass holding the island’s coast line from slipping into the sea. Here the landscape moves and shifts constantly, and much more quickly. After an hour or so, the spring winds will ease all evidence of foot prints.  The local plants and creatures have developed ways to deal with the slow motion of sand. The tamarisk salt cedar bush for example drives its roots into the dunes, then holds and collects moisture around each root. That in turn, hardens the surrounding sand to create a cement like dome around the living root structure of the cedar. We know this because when that dune it grew in moves on, the cedar becomes a tower in a valley waiting for the next sand dune to roll over and cover it again. 

    Once we were out of the car, we found that the sleds worked great. I cant describe the pleasure of that pure sand with the absence of humidity from the ocean. Nothing sticks to your skin, but instead pours off of you leaving a light dusting and a gypsum sparkle on your now, very likely sun burnt arms and legs. As dusk fell the wind picked up even more. We armed our faces with sun glasses and bandanas. The blinding surroundings took on a new form and the modern world dissolved into horizon. 

    “This place becomes something entirely different once the sun is gone”, I remarked to Walker. “I bet we could camp here over night”, he replied. The next night we did just that. We got up early to claim a camping permit, which are limited, and parked the adventure wagon in a lot half way into the park and hiked the rest of the way in to find a campsite. 

    That night the wind had settled, and a half moon priced a clear sky. We set up our tent and made dinner, then roamed the surrounding lunar landscape. Because of the pure white sand bouncing every inch of starlight, there were no need for lanterns, even with a portion of the moon. It was so disorienting walking over the hills and dips, what with flat shadows and a hushed silence you rarely experience. Burrowing owl hoots chattered there way into the glittering valleys once in a while. A night desert chill crept in across the landscape and I laid against a steep dune, burying most of my body. The gypsum still held warmth from the day and I felt suspended in the same heavens I was gazing up at. 

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    It was a dream, until suddenly the silent sky broke with a thundering fighter jet. We followed its light where it landed not too far away. Over half of the gypsum dune field was designated The White Sands Missile Range 1941, the largest military testing site in the United States and contains the Trinity Site, host to the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on Earth. A frigid reminder, that left us wondering how much longer we have with natural wonders such as these. 

An island in the desert, Marfa Texas: By Walker

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There isn’t a whole lot five hundred miles West of Austin. Once or twice on our journey a road runner would characteristically dash across the pavement, or even more theatrically, a tumble weed. Our destination among the vast nothingness was Marfa, Texas —an island in an ocean of dessert. Much as the ocean is the Vineyard’s stoic gatekeeper, imposing forty five minutes of contemplation and observation in form of a ferry ride, the dessert creates a threshold of emptiness, impassible by any means other than a 3 hour drive during which both mind and landscape transform from busy and twisting to flat and open.

     The magic of this subtle barrier was heightened by our travel at dusk, casting flat blue light on the omnipresent creosote bush, and shrouding Marfa in the mystery of night. Once parked and exhausted we immediately went to bed. The next morning, eager to experience the new landscape I stepped outside for my morning coffee and was frozen in place by uncanny stillness. There was no wind, no sound except a distant croaking raven and nothing but dusty yellow grass stretching to the empty blue sky.
    As we wondered into town we saw Marfa is like the land surrounding it, empty. The train last stopped in town in the early 70s and Marfa never recovered. Every other building is boarded up, the single grocery store only has 5 isles, and the only place we tried to get a sandwich for lunch ran out of bread. Through this great lacking however, Marfa reveals herself. The constant presence of the void and awareness of emptiness creates a rarified atmosphere where even the most mundane encounter becomes charged with meaning. To put it simply, walking in Marfa is weird. We liked it.

    It was precisely this elusive quality that drew the artist Donald Judd to Marfa, where, in the early 90s he bought entire blocks of the town and the retired air force base. Before his death Judd transformed the base into a permanent installation space called the Chinati Foundation, for his minimalist sculptures, a pairing that couldn’t be more perfect. Judd’s sculptures resonate with the equally sparse landscape and each elevates the other. I’ve seen plenty of Judd sculptures before, but never felt them until visiting Marfa. This place was special.

    During the short stay a single topic dominated conversations with our friend Mary Etherington, who moved to Marfa after decades on the Vineyard. Was this what the island was once like a mix of cultured bohemians and like-minded one-percenters? Is this the time to invest in Marfa, and hope an explosive return on investment, like Chilmark real estate before the phone lines? Could Marfa help launch our art careers? The answer we discovered was no, this place, like many we’ve visited is a smaller reflection of America as a whole.

    Judd created a minimalist’s paradise in rural Texas, but in doing so also sowed the seeds of its undoing. Putting Marfa on the international art map set the wheels of gentrification in motion, each year more of the latino families who maintained the town between booms are forced out by living costs. The hip art-savy crowd who first migrated to Judd’s vision are priced out of rentals, as buildings are bought and turned into high-end Air B and Bs. Plus there’s talk of building a new airport, for the art collectors to fly into, who else is going to buy the $100,000 Christopher Wool paintings in the new hotel lobby?  Here too, the river between rich and poor is widening.

    After 3 days that seemed strangely divorced from time we departed for New Mexico, back into the subtle barrier of the Texas flatlands. Traveling West, boarder patrol checkpoints are the single interrupters of the vast emptiness. Some are evident miles over the horizon by white blimps floating hauntingly in place, tethered to the ground by great kevlar leads. These eyes-in-the-sky spot any would be boarder crosser, and effortlessly dispatch a convoy of armed boarder agents to intercept before they ever cross the Rio Grande, another river ever widening.

Austin Texas, we like you

Getting ready finally.. to go where its not snowing! 

Getting ready finally.. to go where its not snowing! 

After our breakdown, we had some major decisions to make. Selling art at fairs had proven disappointing, living and business costs had been higher than expected, and we had missed a major show in Florida. While grounded with family in central Massachusetts, we left our truck in the capable hands of Mikey, a family friend who owned three Chevy pickups like ours, who had done all their maintenance himself. After three days and about $400, Mikey had done what a garage in Connecticut said would take two weeks and four grand. Our butts had been saved. 

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The solution to our cost of living issues was to scrap the entire East Coast and head for Texas, where we knew plenty of folks with plenty of space for a trailer. After a week of route-mapping and reworking our plan, we set out for the Lone Star State on Jan. 27 with a road-ready tow vehicle. The new strategy was to move the trailer as little as possible, spend as little as possible, and focus on online income. The month of February would start in Georgetown, Texas, an hour north of Austin. Following would be another two weeks at Habitable Spaces, a sustainable farm and artists’ residency an hour to the south. Another critical component would be three months volunteering in Moab, Utah, at Arches National Park, followed by three more months at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. Both locations provide a campsite and plenty of free time for art practice. Equipped with a cohesive and more stationary itinerary, we departed Massachusetts.

The big ol truck is looking small next to the real trucks. We had our fair share of free Walmart and truck stops to overnight in while heading to the south west. 

The big ol truck is looking small next to the real trucks. We had our fair share of free Walmart and truck stops to overnight in while heading to the south west. 

Four days of driving had us overnighting in rest areas and Walmart parking lots until we came to Hot Springs, Ark. Though disappointed there was no public bathing in the springs, we did tour a grand old bathhouse, and learned about all the geological weirdness that put a hot spring hundreds of miles from any volcanic activity. It was also the first warm night we had, having brought the cold New England air and even some snow with us all the way into Tennessee.

Alive and well in Hot Springs National Park AK

Alive and well in Hot Springs National Park AK

The next day we drove to the driveway of a dear friend in Georgetown, Texas, a rural area built around a large retirement community. In the red state of Texas, Austin and its surrounding areas are a liberal haven, full of people and groups who rally around the causes their state ignores. Barbara and George, our hosts, volunteer at food pantries, organize afterschool programs for children of single parents, and make care packages for families transitioning out of homelessness. Their daughter Mary, an actress and model who has been featured in Danielle’s “Seed Series” films, makes daily calls to the House and Senate. At events in Austin, we met others who marched for LGBTQ rights, disrupted Immigration and Customs Enforcement checkpoints, or raised funds for women seeking abortion services.

Parked in Georgetown TX

Parked in Georgetown TX

Mary Cathrine in front of one of her mothers paintings of a younger Mary

Mary Cathrine in front of one of her mothers paintings of a younger Mary

Mary took us to her spot in the magical Austin Green Belt

Mary took us to her spot in the magical Austin Green Belt

Uncommon Objects, a fantastic antique store in Austin 

Uncommon Objects, a fantastic antique store in Austin 

We of course had to find a dinner and have fried pie

We of course had to find a dinner and have fried pie

We spent the next two weeks day-tripping into Austin, exploring its eclectic mix of food trucks, music venues, and secondhand stores, and eating every kind of taco we could find. We met writers, physicists, theater directors, playwrights, and hackers; attended story slams, puppet shows; visited a fish gallery; and learned how to two-step. Austin lived up to its reputation of weirdness, wonderful people, and being alive with performances. The whole visit left our bellies full and grins on our faces.

Learning to two step at The White Horse! 

Learning to two step at The White Horse! 

Austin isn't really known for their gallery scene .. we googled and found The Fish Gallery. excited we figured it was a bunch of fish paintings. It ended up being even better.. real fish! 

Austin isn't really known for their gallery scene .. we googled and found The Fish Gallery. excited we figured it was a bunch of fish paintings. It ended up being even better.. real fish! 

A local storytelling event held in someones back yard was well attended. 

A local storytelling event held in someones back yard was well attended. 

omg.. the Crackles.. 

omg.. the Crackles.. 

Looking back, the first night of warm air in Hot Springs marked a change for both Danielle and me. It was the air our trailer was made for: It meant places we’d never been, people we’d never met, and entering into the heart of an adventure with no end in sight.

The Break Down on Breakdowns as told by Danielle

A moment of sighing .. 

A moment of sighing .. 

There’s always a “could have been worse.” In this case, Walker and I looked at each other and said, “At least we didn’t die.”

Yes, we broke down. Yes, we are OK. No, we are not giving up … not yet, at least.

I found a seat on a sidewalk curb next to our mobile house on a residential street somewhere in Norwalk, Conn. Looking down the unfamiliar road, I sat and simmered, almost surprised at how angry I was, but not necessarily surprised at the breakdown — the truck had been giving us grief since we bought it. Luckily, we were close to a friend’s house where we took refuge.

We thought we could get the truck repaired and carry on like nothing happened. But the local garage gave us a grave report. What we needed, it seemed, was a new tow vehicle. Our next destination was Washington, D.C. But rather than risk getting stuck in some Kmart parking lot there, we decided to make the very minimum repair and limp back to family in Massachusetts. It was crushing to know we hadn’t even left the neighboring state before we were forced to turn around.

Once we (read: Walker) did some calculations, we began to realize that our budget couldn’t take on another truck while paying for the losses of the old one. Perhaps there is some way to save our existing truck, but is it wise to put more money into a vehicle that keeps coming back to bite us? We are still sitting in limbo, waiting to hear the final evaluation on the old truck, and it’s painful to have no idea what the next week will hold. The beauty of our partnership is our polar-opposite natures. Walker wanted to hold back and be financially responsible. I was ready to jump off the cliff and build the parachute on the way down. Walker told me when I scream adventure, he clenches.

This week has been a learning experience in dealing with adult things, like truck breakdowns and budget meetings with my partner, but the most valuable takeaway is understanding how to move forward in hard times. When I was angry, I was ready to blame everyone from the jerk who sold us the truck to the current economy. After that I just felt guilty, and placed the blame on myself for not being a good enough artist, or being unable to contribute to society. I finally allowed a dark doubt to slip into my inner dialogue and had to look it in the face, dissect it, and see what it was made of.

This partial comic of Dog on Fire by KC Green is our go to these days.. 

This partial comic of Dog on Fire by KC Green is our go to these days.. 

Once I did that, I could understand where Walker was coming from, I could understand the foundation of why I was so upset, and proceed to move forward and find a middle ground.

Yesterday Walker shared an article about finding happiness. Its timing couldn’t have been better. I listened to him read it, anticipating the sappy, same old “inspirational” Internet list you find floating around on Facebook feeds. My ears perked up at its unusual suggestion. Rather then ask yourself, “What do I want?” the author proposed a much more useful question: “What pain am I willing to sustain?” Every significant achievement comes with a struggle. We can want the result all day, but to make it happen, we must commit to the unique pain of each want. It’s how we endure these unavoidable negative experiences that shape our lives. The quality of life is not determined by the quality of positive experiences, but the quality of negative ones. To be good at dealing with the negatives is to be good at dealing with life.

A dark Walker painting while we were stuck in Conneticutt 

A dark Walker painting while we were stuck in Conneticutt