Forgotten Towns

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One Saturday in August, Charlie and I spent 12 hours driving toward, along, around, and away from the Texas-Mexico border.

The first thing to know is that our entire “day trip” was informed by a very devious, very outdated, and quite frankly UTTERLY FALSE AND DIABOLICAL flier that we picked up at an overly hip hotel in Marfa, Texas. The flier urged us to visit the nearby hot springs—turns out you can only soak in the springs if you rent a cabin, like, decades in advance. It went on to recommend that we swing by Presidio, a quaint Texan border town filled with charming hotels, lots of restaurants, and “outstanding shopping.”

With visions of colorful woven baskets and kitschy Texas-themed merch dancing in my head­, we packed three types of film cameras, bagel chips and cheap spreadable cheese, hiking shoes just in case we came across a mountain, and a gallon of water I happened to have on hand. Then we peeled out of town.

Presidio

An important thing to know about me is that I LOVE things that are objectively depressing (though what’s more subjective than the declaration that something is “objectively depressing”?). I get a distinct thrill from them. This isn’t an ironic “hipster” consumeristic thrill, either—it is real, it is poignant, it is unexplainable. I love Dollar Trees. I love sketchy motels. I love happy hours at TGI Fridays. I love half-abandoned buildings, failed businesses, dusty opera houses. So when it became clear that Presidio was not a bustling little town, but rather a stopover on the long and lonely highway from Death to Hell, my first thought was: maybe I could love Presidio. 

We drove around and around, admiring the broken signage and faded lilac buildings, but soon it became clear that Presidio was nothing but dust and “Closed” signs and sketchy restaurants located in people’s actual houses. Eventually we made our way to a dollar store and bought peanut M&Ms in order to get a crisp $50 bill via the “cash back” function.

Why the money, when Presidio was otherwise business-less? Because we were about to cross the border to Ojinaga. And in Ojinaga, the mendacious flier promised us, we would find even better shopping.

Ojinaga

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Okay, this trip wasn’t just about indulging in a rampant consumption of “authentic artisanal crafts” with “Made in China” stickers on the bottom. It was also about spectre of The Border and the archetype of The Border Town. These things loom large in our cultural imagination, and I think it’s very important to see things like that IRL, to see as much as you can, no matter how far removed it all seems from your regular life, no matter how many miles away your real home happens to be.

The border itself was like something out of a dystopian novel. Looking at it—the military green uniforms, the huge white buildings, the mysterious “under-construction” structures that seemed destined for strange and foreboding purposes—you really got the sense of the magnitude of the State, the cruel, cold efficiency of Law, and the pointless stagnancy of Bureaucracy. The soldiers seemed . . . well . . . overdressed. I felt odd about the ease with which we whipped across the line.

Where Presidio was dead, Ojinaga was alive. I’ll give it that. But the town was confusing, sprawling, full of dead ends that spilled out into gravel pits. It was stuck in the hot humid gunk of transience that characterizes all things that live on the edge. Sure, there were schools, and stores, and men selling hammocks by the side of the street. My favorite part was the graveyard—festive with color, bleak with wire fencing. But you got the sense that people didn’t want to live there, that they were coming or going (or unable to come and go, trapped under the great black boot of the American Border Patrol).

The above paragraphs demonstrate a fallacy: my tendency to filter my experience of things through my own preconceived ideas of them. Is the Ojinaga/Presidio border actually foreboding? Are people in Ojinaga really stuck in a gunk of transience, waiting to cross over? Why is it so easy to convince yourself that you’re picking up on real human woe and boredom and despair? We all like to think we’re some beautiful empathetic channeler of pain, quivering like a dowsing rod, so tuned in to the agony of the world that by simply glancing at a colorful graveyard we feel—nay, we TASTE—the pain of a thousand border crossings, THE AGONY OF IMPERMANENCE, THE VERY CLASH OF NATIONS THEMSELVES!

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Getting back across the border was characterized by a flurry of confusion. We had to pay $1.50 to get back into the States (an oddly petty fee) and only had our infamous $50 bill on us—and the people at the border toll simply didn’t have any change. We looked at them in disbelief as they told us to make a u-turn and go back into town and buy something to break up that albatross of a $50. So we went spinning back into the streets of Ojinaga, where Charlie sidled up to a currency exchange and I bought three beaded bracelets from a woman who had given us directions earlier. Then there was some waiting in traffic, some brief and disinterested questioning about our citizenship, and we were across.

Big Bend State Park

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The Rio Grande is muddy and slow. The road snakes alongside it, mimicking its curves. We curved along the road. I looked for falling rocks, since the signage implied that there was a 75% chance we’d die that day under a rock fall. We got out to look at the hoodoos—rock columns that have been eroded on the bottom, so that the rocks appear to balance on top. Two women were taking a selfie. I thought about offering to take their photo, knowing how often I wish someone would offer the same to me and Charlie. But I didn’t. I was feeling awkward, sensitive to other humans, content just to nestle against Charlie and look at the mushroom-shaped rocks.

Later, I broke the law of the park by filching a purple rock, studded with crystals. In my defense, the rock was already sitting on the road. The next semi truck would have crushed it. You could say I saved it. You could say I was truly a Good Person in that moment. Couldn’t you?

Terlingua Ghost Town

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If you want to commune with the ghosts in Terlingua, I have a recommendation: meet them in the cemetery just before a rainstorm, when the wind is making the milagros rattle against the hand-hewn wooden crosses.

It wasn’t raining when we got there. We scrambled into the incongruous gift shop (no ghosts there) where we snagged a map of the tiny town, put a dollar in the “suggested donation” box, and set out to explore Terlingua on foot. The sun was brutal.

Terlingua used to be a mercury mining town, and now it’s mostly laying in beautiful ruins. The town seems sensitive about mercury poisoning and insists that very few people actually died of it, despite the size of the graveyard. My favorite ruined building was the former house of a very rich man, which was tall and thin and gorgeous (the house, not the man), and is now half-hotel, half-ruins. I’m sure the insurance company has a field day with that. The windows on the top of the house were built purposefully narrow, to protect the house against Pancho Villa. How these narrow windows protected the inhabitants against Villa was unclear to me. Less glass, less chance that a bullet is going to fly through a window and snuff ya out? See, I would want big windows, massive windows—not just because I love natural light, but because I want to see my enemy coming.

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The church was also beautiful, and seemed to be still in use. But it was so hot and humid and airless that we moved around slowly, dripping sweat. I liked these little pictures that narrated the walk to the cross. I know other people would find them cheesy, or tasteless, but somehow they managed to strike me as very sorrowful—perhaps because they were so small, and tacked so high to the wall.

Residents

In the ghost town, as we were staring at what looked like an abandoned movie theater (but was actually a functioning restaurant housed inside an abandoned movie theater), a man in his 70s asked us if we were enjoying Terlingua. He was wearing a shirt that said “My Indian Name is Runs-With-Beer.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“We’re living in Marfa this summer, then Chicago in the fall,” I said.

“I hate both those places,” he replied.

I laughed and didn’t say anything.

“Okay, Marfa has like three cool things about it. But this place has eighty thousand cool things about it.”

He told us that his house was the one with the rock sculptures around it. “Are you an artist?” I asked.

“No!” he scoffed. I really dug his denial.

The residents of Terlingua have a vague truther vibe. You have to be a little bit cracked to reject the venerated cultural capital of Chicago and Marfa and settle among ghosts in one of the most striking and desolate parts of the world. I think it’s admirable. The town’s population is, like, 50 people.

Police

Our stint with the border patrol was far from over. At night, on our way back to Marfa, speeding down some lonely and flat highway, we were waved into a border patrol checkpoint. A huge drug dog with a manic look in his eyes smelled the wheels of Charlie’s car and gave some mysterious signal to his handler who gave another mysterious signal to the man who was interviewing us who, in turn, informed us that our car had drugs inside it.

No, we said.

They looked at us sternly. “It will be so much easier for you if you’re honest with us,” they said.

We speculated afterward, racing away in our drug-free car, that they were bored, that they had a long night to kill, and that the dog was just hyped up on all the human attention.

It’s hard to know what to take away from that interaction, as it is with most things in life. There were five of us: two men, the dog, me, my husband. Who was just doing their job? Who overreacted? Who tried too hard to be right? Who could have tried harder to be kind? Under the fluorescent lights, in the Texas night air, we were all looking warily into each other’s eyes, trying to read the situation, wondering how real it all was, striving to calm our animal selves as the beautiful mad dog leaped around, panting, confused, happy to be alive.

Half a Year: Photos

I bought a Moleskine planner today. (It’s a thing.) I cleaned out my camera. My new planner starts July 1st. While in limbo, I thought I’d look back on this first half of the year. This is a totally skewed portrait, since I never had my rather bulky DSLR at any of the many FABULOUS, STUDIO 54-WORTHY parties I’ve gone to, nor do I have screenshots of the MILLIONS OF GROVELING EMAILS begging me for a lock of my hair, but I like these photos nonetheless. What has this half-a-year been like? I couldn’t say. Some of it was a melancholy blur. A small part of it was spent blissfully cracked out on that elusive beast, writing inspiration. A little bit of it was spent careening through the air in a metal tube that runs on jet fuel–a terrifying activity that I hope to do more of in the fall. A lot of it was spent dancing and drinking. Many decibels of this year were expended in honor of my polygamous husbands, the BLACKHAWKS, STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS 2013. But what was it? What would I name this half-a-year, if I were Adam and God was asking me to give everything a name? I would say, “I don’t know.” And then I would ask God his thoughts on East of Eden, a freakishly good book…I think.

JANUARY: San Diego, LA, Bloomington (or: home, kindreds, grad school)

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FEBRUARY: reading, coffee, Valentine’s hair, Chicago

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MARCH: Spring, Easter

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APRIL: Cohort

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MAY: Moving, writing, Colombia (PS: MORE PICTURES COMING SOON), existential despair

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JUNE: Farmer’s markets, hustling

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Colombia-Bound

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Toridotgov is taking a break from regularly-scheduled (uh, whimsical, sporadic) programming to go on a totally spontaneous bought-my-ticket-48-hours-before-departure leaving-tomorrow-morning omg-omg-omg trip to the birthplace of the most adorable 87-year-old man on the planet, Gabriel Garcia “I love you too, Tori” Marquez! THAT’S RIGHT, I’M GOING TO COLUMBIA, OHIO! Minus Ohio. Oh, SIMILAR PLACE NAMES! You’re so tricksy, like Gollum! Two important things. No, three.

1. IF YOU WANT TO BE MY FRIEND FROM NOW ON WE ARE TAKING SPONTANEOUS TRIPS AROUND THE WORLD. Who cares about money? Put that thang on your credit card, baby! LET’S SEE EVERYTHING!

2. I just want to take a moment to say that I love my dad and this trip is extra-secretly meaningful to me because my parents traveled around Colombia (and the rest of South America) on their honeymoon. I am taking the film camera they used to document their shenanigans (well, the second film camera…the first one was stolen…in Colombia…SHH MY DAD DOESN’T KNOW I’M TAKING IT IT’S A SURPRISE/I DON’T WANT HIM TO PANIC). I am also taking a little journal embossed with my initials in real gold leaf that my dad picked up for me in Kenya, so that I can write down everything I think. I owe my (largely-unfulfilled) love of traveling to him, as well as my love of all things translated-from-the-Spanish. I wish I had his knack for languages and his ability to live off canned beans and egg tortillas so that he could spend all his money on seeing the museums and monuments and natural splendors of the world. Papi, you’re an inspiration!

3. Hi ghost of Scott & Zelda perpetually pinned to the back of my bedroom door, YOU INSPIRE ME TOO.

Literally

Possibly the most irritating habit I’ve picked up over the past two years is a horrifying, life-consuming addiction to the word “literally.” It started as a hilarious joke (as do most things in my life, including the time I accidentally killed a man in Juarez), in which I convinced myself that saying “literally” with a super straight face about things that weren’t at all literal was the GREATEST THING EVER. I know, I know, it’s that type of demented thinking that leads to horrors like hipster irony. I’m not proud.

Just like the first time I tried crystal meth, it quickly became a habit I literally couldn’t break. It also spread to my friends. Soon enough, even my dentist was saying things like, “I will literally pull out all your teeth if you don’t sit still.” The only person who remained immune was my boyfriend, too busy playing the bass literally all the time (not an exaggeration) to notice that his woman was sinking into a syntactical quicksand from which there was no escape.

Instead of fighting the hopeless fight against invasive adverbs, I’ve decided to embrace the word “literally”–nay, to CELEBRATE it–by exploring the most genius literal usage of our day and age as found in a little thing I like to call THE POP SONG. In a world of hyperbole, a world where people use and abuse the word “literally” on a daily basis, sometimes it’s refreshing to hear of things that are actually literal. Devoid of all poetry, subtlety, wit, and pretensions. Refreshing as a stream of Fiji-brand water, which is literally a ripoff. The following lyrics are literally literal. U hear me?

1. “Girl, run your own show/but don’t be on some ho shit.” –Kreayshawn

This is the most hilarious line I have ever heard. I love how Kreayshawn DOES NOT EVEN TRY TO RHYME. She just doesn’t give a fuck. She has something very basic to say (I would totally give this advice to one of my friends if she were trying to leave her 9-5 and considering prostitution), and she says it in tuneless deadpan. A few more singles like this one and all editors will be out of business forever.

2. “Bad enough to die from one/not to mention four or five.” –3 Doors Down

Well played, 3 Doors Down. Well played. The lesser intellects among us like to grapple with the existential dilemmas found in the game Would You Rather…(my brothers always asked me if I wanted to “die in a cactus bush,” and I’m still not sure exactly how that works), but you’re way too real for hypotheticals. Instead, you remind us of the immortal truth ever-hovering around the edges of the life-death spectrum. Why beat around the [cactus] bush? It’s always worse to die from more things than from just one thing!!!!!!!!!

3. “Stalking-ass bitch/shit I don’t like.” –Chief Keef

I’m totally with you on this one, Keef. I, too, dislike stalking-ass bitches. This line resonates with me in a particular way because of my downstairs neighbor, who truly gives me the creeps. He told me that he keeps baby oil in a spray bottle and spritzes it all over his body. Then he showed me his shiny arm and said, “It gleams.” Then he told me to watch out for creepy guys.

4. “Interesting’s what I find you.” –Black Eyed Peas

I really respect the BEP’s decision to go for the blandest adjective of all time here.  Other artists may kill themselves trying to unearth the MOST surprising, original, fresh imagery for their tunes, but the BEP extends a huge middle finger to the literati with this powerful one-two punch. They find me interesting. And they’re sure as hell not gonna elaborate.

On that note, I am literally packing up my Chicago apartment and moving down to Bloomington, Indiana, right now, to get my MFA. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

10 Places You Must See Before You Die

1. America

Known to natives as “land of the free, home of the brave,” America has something for everyone. If you want to see cool buildings, you’re in luck–several of America’s most famous cities are full of buildings. Looking for a great local bar? Simply head to the middle of any city or town and look for a sign that says “Red Lion,” “Plough,” or Tiki Palace.” Itching to try some of our famous cuisine? Any major American highway is lined with tantalizing options–we recommend the legendary restaurant Arby’s, pronounced AR-BEEZ.

2. Ocean

Ocean is a large hole, filled to the brim with pulsing, salty water. Return to your fetal roots and take a dip in the comforting intrauterine bath that brings life to the world and allows clouds to form and whales to survive. And mermaids!!

3. The Moon

No vacation is complete without a long stare at the night sky. Crane your neck from side to side until you spot a mysterious, shining orb. This is the “moon,” a legendary ball of rock that hangs from the ceiling of the sky on invisible threads. Please note: “moon” is often confused with “sun.” One simple way to tell them apart: are your retinae burning? That is not the moon.

4. Pasta with Parmesan

King Solomon’s riches. Cleopatra’s beauty. Pasta with Parmesan. Often called the “Venus de Milo of the Twenty-First Century,” a steaming bowl of buttery pasta, lightly salted and sprinkled with curls of fresh Parmesan, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Please note: keep an eye out for curly small noodles in a colorless broth. Con artists have been known to trick tourists into paying good money for this sight, attempting to pass it off as pasta con Parmigiano, but it’s actually a cheap knockoff called Ramen. 

5. Not the Inside of a Hospital

If you have never seen the inside of a hospital, you have possibly had a great life, with the exception of–ew–your home birth.

6. Facebook’s Deactivation Screen

Nobody who hasn’t attempted to free themselves from the soul-sucking claws of Facebook at least once can call themselves an actualized human being. Facebook’s deactivation screen is manipulative and strange–you’ll be presented with a series of random “friends,” as Facebook insists, “They’ll miss you!” But they won’t miss you. They won’t miss you at all. 

7. Jupiter’s Core

Have you ever wanted to be crushed into an exquisite diamond by unbelievable pressure and strange gaseous substances? Nothing is better than a Tiffany’s ring–except maybe a glittering rock composed of your very own body. We’ll bet good money that your soul’s in there, too. Book your trip to Jupiter, today!

8. A Really Spaced-Out Baby

Not much is cuter than a baby drooling on his dad’s arm, totally spacing out and quite possibly high. Hello there, lil’ fella!

9.  Bros Talking Shop

Bored in a strange city? Catch some prime comedy by heading to your local coffee shop or gym and listening to bros talking shop! You’ll split your sides wide open at lines like, “We’re really taking the initiative by reaching out into formerly untouched markets,” and “Can you recommend a great distributor with the skill sets I’m looking for?” A can’t-miss attraction!

10. Graveyards in the Snow

If you really want to feel like an artist–or the Phantom of the Opera’s next victim–take a stroll around your local burial grounds the next time it snows. The deep silence, the soft gray of the tombstones shimmering through the snowflakes, the stone angels with their temporal crowns of white, the strange snow-covered lumps on the ground that cannot be confirmed or denied to be dead bodies–it’s a life-changing experience.