Travelblogue V: Marfa, Texas (art not included)

I have nothing to say about Donald Judd, the Chinati Foundation, or the art scene of Marfa—only because we added it to our itinerary as a lark…a way out-of-the-way, too short, and (now we know) blessed lark. We knew we were supposed to be visiting because of those things, and we knew it would be difficult because of our arrival during the Film Festival. We got there at dusk one night and left before noon the next day. Most accommodations were reserved and we had struggled to book lodging (and only lucked out because of cancellations).

We had each done only vague research about the exact location of Prada Marfa along Highway 90 and sped right past it (how is that even possible? It’s surrounded by nothing, right on the road!) in our haste to get to the Thunderbird Motel and check in (and outrun the rainstorm). 


But even without the aforementioned attractions, even with no luck getting into one of the cool restaurants (Dairy Queen dinner FTW, complete with West Texas houseflies!), even just driving around mostly deserted streets of mostly vacant-looking buildings, we were besotted. Everyone was friendly and had generous grins (except for the one hipster waiter who told us to forget getting a table). We circled past two folks sitting on the pavement in the middle of the street playing guitar and singing—almost willing us to stop and acknowledge their civic transgression with hopeful smiles. Truly free spirits or self-conscious and attention-seeking? Who cares?

We, too, would have sat there, had we brought guitars. We, too, leapt up from our DQ sundaes half an hour before the sun went completely down and raced 30 miles back up highway 90 to find the missed Prada Marfa before the incredible, big light left. We, too, stood in the middle of the blank road and turned around and around, sniffing the peculiarly fragrant air (I’ve since learned there are native plants there that would have been new to me and are unique to the area), marveling at the temperature drop, making common cause with the Australian guys who saw us stop and got out to take a few pictures, felt our hearts race with joy even as our heartbeats slowed. We, too, hopped through grass (WATCH OUT FOR RATTLESNAKES, CHAD MILLER!) to look at old, de-commissioned windmills. 


Another small town we had visited seemed like a produced memory of a gold rush spirit, propped up by artifice, Old West reenactments, and bags of feed to purchase for the quasi-domesticated wild burros. Marfa, on the other hand, was buzzing with the rubbing up against each other of heritage (old family-owned store names retained on buildings), hunger (of new residents to make a life where Making A Life of making art was actually possible and non-exhausting), and hope (that old and new—politically disparate—Marfans co-existing might provide a counter-lesson to, say, what we see in legislatures). 


It’s no wonder I slept like a baby, even as trains whistled just behind my room in the night. It’s no wonder we schemed about how to get back, even as we were driving out of town. It’s no wonder we looked at real estate prices and fantasized about opening various businesses.

And all without ever even getting to the art.

Jenifer Ward is the Editor of Off Paper and Dean of the College at Cornish College of the Arts. Read installment #1, #2,  #3 and #4 here!

One Response to “Travelblogue V: Marfa,Texas (art not included)”

Chad says:

  1. July 16, 2013 at 12:53 am

    Without a doubt, there are two lives being led in Marfa: those of the artists that have taken up studio there and the farmers/ranchers of Marfa/Alpine. At the Thunderbird Motel, you’ll see the artists. At the Dairy Queen, you’ll see the native townsfolk (and flies).

    What I didn’t realize until we were driving away is that this town of two lives perfectly mirrors the lives that Jenifer currently is living: the artist/the spectator and pre-operation/post-operation. Jenifer truly came alive, as it were, while we were traveling through Marfa and that in itself was its own lively adventure as I watched the resurrection of an artist left dormant.

Travelblogue VI (final episode): Ashes and Dust

The surgeons who repaired my CSF leak used cadaver skin to fashion the part of the repair that was on the “brain side” of my skull. Since the procedure, I have joked that any behavior on my part that struck someone as odd should be chalked up to a random person’s DNA being pressed right onto my brain—just like in those B movies in which a character’s severed hand is transplanted with one from a serial killer, which leads the character to then become a serial killer, too. I have hoped that my cadaver was an artist or—at the very least—a creative and compassionate person, with less tendency toward fear and procrastination and more inclination toward math, drawing, and making healthy food choices.

The fear of surgery was considerable. I bucked up publicly, but in private I trembled. It was to take place on February 14, and February 13 of this year coincided with Ash Wednesday. I was alone in my apartment (still recovering and in treatment for meningitis), and I took to ruminating over what could go wrong, what accounts were not settled, how much I wanted to survive, what people cleaning out my apartment would think about my music and books if I didn’t (but I didn’t have time to go through them and discard the stupid ones). I thought about the Christian ritual of the imposition of ashes, and its relationship to mortality and penitence. I was in no shape to go to a church, and so I reclined on my sofa, wrapped in a quilt, and lit a match. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. I extinguished it, let it cool, and harvested the ash from the match head. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. I made the sign of the cross on my own forehead, site of the leak, with a finger. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Somehow, improbably, standing in the dust of the high desert of Marfa at the end of 2000 miles of driving, I came to the liturgically and theologically bizarre conclusion that I was, in fact, not on vacation, but was on a pilgrimage, and that the ground and the air there were as holy as the water of Bernadette’s spring in Lourdes.

I left renewed, if only ephemerally.

Car antics, laughter, and cherry-lime slushes with Chad hadn’t hurt, either, and I felt a genuine lump in my throat when I had to drop him off to meet his family at a travel center on I-10 and continue my journey alone. As romantic as the notion of a solo, contemplative road trip had sounded to me, I had underestimated the right-setting of uninterrupted time with a kindred, generous soul (who, like me, would sing all the parts of Bohemian Rhapsody—melody, harmonies, and instrumental parts—simultaneously and at full volume). As I continued, I visited friends in San Antonio, had fried chicken and peach pie with cousins at “heaven’s cafeteria”—Bryce’s in Texarkana—and pressed on to Little Rock to see friends there, as well.

In the South, there are ceiling or oscillating fans in every room, and people still say yes, ma’am and no, sir to strangers and elders.

And finally, after nine days on the road, I reached my destination: Bee Branch, Arkansas, where I would spend nights in my uncle’s cabin and days attending to the work of going through my father’s things in the house down the road—my father, who had never discarded a negative, a contact sheet, a letter he had received, a copy of one he had sent, a draft of his books or speeches, a document, a bank statement, or a tiny pocket day-timer in his long life. Whatever I had remembered of him through my own experience, it was now being re-framed through what he had chosen to keep, and by the stories his brothers and sisters were telling me about him.

The more time elapses since his death, the more I feel I am running after his truck, Old Blue, down the road in Van Buren County, the road dust mixing with the exhaust trail, running, grabbing at it all.

He was the one that knew me. We shared a reputation for being quirky, peculiar, always-sure-if-not-always-right, intense, competent, generous with things and sometimes stingy with patience. I have his big personality, his tendency to hum under his breath, and his obsession (especially earlier in his life), with making a picture of everything I see.

I love this clip. We were on a road trip to see family in Nashville, Arkansas. I love that Dad is so eager to show my cousins and me his newfangled instant camera. I love that I will always remember him this way. I love that I am smiling and hugging and curious, freely swinging on an open car door—where I am not supposed to be—and I love that I have just re-acquainted myself, over the last 6500 miles, with that girl.

When I consider The Project Room’s question of how we want to be remembered, I know that the humble and truthful answer is not about My Life’s Work or my Contributions to Society—it’s about this. Just this: being no stranger to swinging on an open car door, and being smiling and hugging and curious.

Jenifer Ward is the Editor of Off Paper and Dean of the College at Cornish College of the Arts. Read her entire road trip series here:

#1: Travelblogue I: Solstice

#2: Travelblogue II: Perigee

#3: Travelblogue III: Key Lime is the Color of Grief

#4: Travelblogue IV: Road to Nowhere

#5: Travelblogue V: Marfa,Texas (art not included)


Travelblogue IV: Road to Nowhere

I want to be remembered as the lady who rolled up to the kitschy Flintstones’ Bedrock Village roadside attraction in rural Arizona with a fancy L.A. bakery box filled with a red velvet bundt cake, paid admission, went in, ate one sliver on a piece of Fred and Wilma’s garishly painted rock furniture with a travel spork, went out, and gifted the cashier with the rest of the cake.

She was thrilled. I would have been digging through it for white powder and razor blades, or explosives, maybe, but she just beamed at us.

Most of the memorials I had been seeing were for hard, enduring things: bridges, roads, stadiums. They were named after men—fallen soldiers, policeman, politicians. I started wondering what a gendered public memorial for women would look like. The only things I would want to be remembered for along the way were non-specific and non-concrete: a vista, a sound, an experience, an act, an intervention, a spontaneous gesture that led to a story a young Arizona tourist trap cashier would recount when she arrived home from work with a decadent (partially eaten) cake from a big city bakery miles away.

Outside of Oatman, Arizona, someone remembered “Bullitt” on a rock.


My friend Chad and I had dodged burros in the middle of the road in an old mining town in Arizona, had dodged tourists gasping at the thin air at the Grand Canyon, had dodged elk in the road from the Canyon back to I-40, had dodged a near disaster by going too quickly over railroad tracks in Flagstaff (no, really, we thought we had scraped the undercarriage clean off the car). Whoever was not driving was snapping iPhotos of the landscape or making iVideos of the trains—the many, many trains—from the passenger seat.

We participated in a summer music festival on the plaza in Santa Fe, had the best ever brisket and green chile burritos in a blazing hot parking lot in Albuquerque, cursed the spotty cell reception in Hatch, began what would become a refreshment trope for the whole trip—Cherry Lime slushes—somewhere near El Paso, were stopped at a border check along the Mexican border (“Are you both US citizens?” “Yes, sir!” I leaned over from the passenger side to say to the obviously FEMALE officer in my flustered and irrational fear of being deported, as Chad fumbled with the contents of his wallet, looking for identification). We laughed, we sang, we tried to take a photo of the “110 degrees” temperature reading on the dashboard readout.

On the Texas Mountain Trail just before Sierra Blanca, Texas, “Mingo” and “Lupe” have their names spray-painted on a stone.

By the time we veered south from the interstate onto Highway 90 toward Marfa, I had unfurled. We were the only ones on the road, slowing to try (and failing) to catch dust devils on video, gauging how long the far-off horizon rainstorm would take to reach us (or would we overtake it first?), and thrilling to the silver dollar-sized raindrops when they finally came.  The hairpin turns of my first few driving days had corresponded to the kinks in my soul, but now the west Texas landscape was laying it out flat, smoothing it: I was getting a soul-ironing by the time we saw the large billboard just outside of town: “WELCOME TO MARFA.”



Jenifer Ward is the Editor of Off Paper and Dean of the College at Cornish College of the Arts. Read installment #1 here#2 here, and #3 here!


Travelblogue III: Key Lime is the Color of Grief

I worried on day 3 that I had made a terrible mistake. The adrenaline from the first leg of the trip left me around Gilbert, California, just as the scent of garlic fields replaced the eucalyptus. There were lots of RVs with bicycles mounted on the backs. The wheels of the bikes circled lazily in front of me, like pinwheels on a faint breeze, and I found myself falling into a Caligari-esque hypnotic trance (if Dr. Caligari had had a recreational vehicle). I also hit my first traffic, and inched along from just north of Santa Barbara clear in to Los Angeles (with a welcome break to see a friend at a packed-to-the-rafters In-N-Out Burger in Newbury Park. I was in California! It was a must!). But I found my second wind after studying the backs of my eyelids for a few moments in my hotel room on Santa Monica Boulevard, and ventured out for an early dinner with yet more old friends. We sat outside and I had my first occasion—in over a year—to utter the words: “the sun is hot on the back of my neck.” Also: did you know that serving a grown-up woman an ice cream float of housemade yuzu soda, vanilla ice cream, and vodka will make her giggle like a small child after 3 days of being mostly alone?

Truth be told, it would have been a straighter shot to Arkansas (my ultimate destination, my home) to go diagonally across the country and skip California altogether. Two things impelled me: 1) the prospect of picking up a travel partner, Chad, who would get a kick out of doing road trippy things with me; 2) the desire to see something my dad had always talked about: the La Brea Tar Pits. Once I penciled LA into the route, I added the James Turrell retrospective at LACMA with a set of college friends (California’s state motto should be: “California! State of Large Concentration of Jenifer’s Friends!”).

The Tar Pits were freaky. There were large fenced off areas with bubbling tar, but more concerning were the various spots where tar was just starting to rise to the surface, some with makeshift fencing, some as yet unmarked.


I worried that no one had really accounted for the unpredictability of the tar when LACMA was built and that one day soon I would hear the news that the whole complex had been swallowed up—artsy hipsters now lodged cheek-by-jowl with saber-tooth tiger and mastodon remains, but the subterranean resting place at least adorned with incredible art. And a gift shop.

Chad and I pranced around the grounds and then I met my friends for the Turrell tour. Cue record player needle scratching across a record: my reaction to the Turrell experience was unpredicted.“Key Lime”  is evidently the color of grief. Going into that exhibit, the marker suggested to the viewer that one should allow at least 5 minutes with the work. I shuffled along in the darkness, hand on the wall to keep my bearings, and found the bench where I was supposed to sit.

It was quiet, cool, dark, and—within seconds—I started to cry. I have no explanation. It’s not as if I haven’t been immersed in darkness since my father died, but the light installation in front made this darkness so much blacker, so much more velvety, enveloping, visceral. No one could see me. I couldn’t see myself. I was unobservable, even to me, and—completely outside of time and space and reason—the tears bubbled up like the tar underneath me, sticky and inescapable.


Jenifer Ward is the Editor of Off Paper and Dean of the College at Cornish College of the Arts. Read installment #1 here of this series. and #2 here


Travelblogue II: Perigee

I left the northern coast of California as the sun was coming up, hoping to see the redwood trees for the first time in my life before the light was too high.  I hugged the ocean until Eureka and then turned inland to start the long trek on the Redwood Highway. I don’t know what I expected—I reckoned that I would see the giant timbers off in the far distance—but in fact they were inches from the road: the very winding, relatively narrow, light-jarred road. I was angling for dappled, but what I hooked was shards of light cutting through my field of vision down through the massive, dark trees—an unsettling and dangerous chiaroscuro, since there were other cars on the road, too, and since I was turning out to be quite the leadfoot, once unfettered (it’s hard to be a leadfoot anywhere in Seattle).

I saw a sign for “Elk Meadow” up ahead, which, as it turned out, was not the name of a quaint village, but an actual meadow with dozens and dozens of elk wandering and lying about—very (alarmingly) close to the road. By the time I reached Ukiah, I was both exhilarated and exhausted, my voice hoarse from screaming the one line about the redwood forest from “This Land is Your Land” over several hours. After a break for lunch and a pause to let some color back into my white knuckles, I took the wheel again and headed for the Bay Area. I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and rolled down my window, letting in the smell of eucalyptus as I drove along 19th Avenue through the city.[Pro tip: eucalyptus sometimes smells like cat pee when it’s filtered through a vehicle’s A/C system. Roll down the windows.]

I broke for the night in Menlo Park, since I have friends I wanted to see there. While my hotel room was probably more like average, it seemed luxurious, clean, and palatial by the previous night’s standards. I took my shoes off and walked, brazenly, to and fro across the carpet in my bare feet. My friends arrived and we went to dinner, our conversation the first of several similar ones I would have over the course of the next days:

“Why have we waited so long to see each other?”

Why, indeed?  Because losing one’s father and almost one’s own life leads to a certain urgency to right such wrongs, to race across the country, seeing sights unknown and renewing friendships.

“Let’s not wait this long again.”

No, let’s not. Let’s develop some intention around cultivating and caring for one’s relationships, shall we? This is what we’ll want to remember when we’re old, right?

After dinner, returning to the hotel at dusk, we spied the rising perigee moon, the one that occurs on the night on which the moon is closest to the earth: the supermoon. I wish it had risen over something more mystical than the Stanford Shopping Center, but it rose nonetheless over a reunion of friends, in a car, laughing with the windows down. 5-year old Owen had given me a lollipop. I slept well.


Jenifer Ward is the Editor of Off Paper and Dean of the College at Cornish College of the Arts. Read Installment #1 here: and #3 Here


Travelblogue I: Solstice

I left on a road trip on the longest day of the longest year. I would drive with the promise of enduring light, the road unrolling over the darkness of months of stress, grief, confusion, and ill health: a slate-wiping or a full immersion baptism—either way, it would happen with music, sky, and a game-like hunt for the best gas prices and cleanest restrooms.

In German, there is an imposing word: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It means, quite literally, mastering the past. In a German context, it refers to the guilt-filled prospect of dealing with the Nazi past. In my own consideration of recent events, it was less a need to master them as it was an urgent desire to be IN them. My father, to whom I was close and from whom I received many of the traits that make me who I am, had died before the holidays—taking my identity mirror with him.

But just as I was about to dive, in earnest, into the process of grieving his loss, I came down with bacterial meningitis. That was followed by the discovery that the organism had gained entry through a small hole in the front of my skull, through which cerebrospinal fluid was leaking out my nose. What I thought was months-long sinusitis turned out to be my very brain fluid flowing away. Months of hospitalization, surgery to repair the leak, and tiresome recovery later, I packed my new little car and turned my face toward home: the South.

I only stayed on I-5 from Seattle to Roseburg, OR, at which point I took the “wagon road” over the hills toward Coos Bay and picked up US 101. Still—at one and the same time—wound up and depleted, still set-jawed, I tried to inhabit the role of Middle-Aged Woman On Epic Road Trip, Considering Loss and Identity, Remembering Who She Was and Is. I put on the right clothes, I donned the jaunty cap, I cued up the proper tunes. But I was acting. Mostly I felt like a fraud. Mostly I fought the urge to check email from work. Mostly I stumbled over song lyrics and shifted in my seat, gripping the wheel a little too tightly.  But I committed to the role, and by the time I rounded the bend in Port Orford and saw full-out ocean—the waves-crashing-against-craggy-coast kind—I felt my brow starting to unfurrow. I stopped at the first “vista point” and stood on the cliff, listening and breathing in this different air from downtown Seattle for a while, and then pressed on to my first overnight of the trip: Crescent City, California.


Truth? Forgettable. EXCEPT that my hotel room was so scary that I put on the flip-flops I had packed for the eventuality of a hotel pool along the way, and wore them to bed. Yes, I was so afraid that I would get up in the night for an, um, comfort necessity, and would be too groggy to remember to put them on before shuffling over that infested carpet (infested with germs, with bugs, with dirt, with body fluids, with sad endings?) to the bathroom, that I WORE MY FLIP-FLOPS TO BED. I shouldn’t have been concerned. It was solstice, and I couldn’t sleep. I clutched the thin sheet to my chin (being careful not to touch the thin coverlet over it), and stared at the ceiling—with my feet against rubber soles—until I finally dozed off. Day One accomplished.

Jenifer Ward is the Editor of Off Paper and Dean of the College at Cornish College of the Arts.

Looking for the entire series? Click below:

#1: Travelblogue I: Solstice

#2: Travelblogue II: Perigee

#3: Travelblogue III: Key Lime is the Color of Grief

#4: Travelblogue IV: Road to Nowhere

#5: Travelblogue V: Marfa,Texas (art not included)

#6: (Final episode) Ashes and Dust