Marathon, Texas. Dec. 5, We drive south out of Fort Stockton after surviving a roller-coaster ride of run-of-the-mill Wallingford absurdity last night. If running out of gas weren’t sensational enough for one night, we flirted with duplicating the feat after accidentally bypassing Van Horn and U.S. 90. We got off at Balmorhea (and what a name, incidentally. Seems worse than diarrhea). No gas in Balmorhea.
Lots and lots of desolate room to breathe in West Texas. Lots and lots of endless highway cutting through a flat, interminable desert of nothingness.
In the Walmart this morning, I met a man from Imperial, Texas.
“I’m from Imperial, Texas,” he said.
He was friendly but hard of hearing. I wanted to know more. He sounded familiar. Made me think of the wonderful Kev Russell, of the Gourds and Shinyribs and late of Kev Russell’s Junker and Pickett Line Coyotes.
We stumble onto 385 south. We have Big Bend National Park in our sights. We know it is out there somewhere, hard by the United States of Mexico. On the way out of town, we pick up a couple bean-and-cheese burritos at Acosta’s Tortilla Factory. They are OK, just OK. Kind of like Taco Bell. I’m sick of Mexican restaurants. I long for the taco trucks of Austin.
An hour later we roll into Marathon. According to the roadside history marker, it got its name from “an old sea captain” named A.E. Shephard. Apparently it brought to mind the plain of Marathon in Greece.
Marathon’s a pleasing little oasis deep in the heart of west Texas. Pinyon pines and maples mingle peaceably with agave and prickly pear underneath hills of Paleozoic limestone.
We’re nearly out of food, so we park on Avenue D nearby the French Grocer. Maybe somebody inside can help us out.
As is customary, I am in luck. I run right off the street and right into the Dr. John of apocalyptic Mexican-American Jews. With his colorful turban on his head, sunglasses covering his eyes and Star of David resting against his chest, Rebbe David Dela’O looks like a real hepcat. As Mac Rebennack himself might say: Your look, it matters a difference.
Right off the top, let me say I like Rebbe. Most of what he says, I identify with instantly. His theological beliefs, though, mystify me. I am a man of this world, which, incidentally, Rebbe tells me is not long for this world.
He was born Antonio David Dela’O, in New Mexico, just north of El Paso, 71 years ago.
Somewhere along the line, he says, he reclaimed his stolen religious heritage. He says most Mexican-Americans belong to one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Deep down they are Sephardic Jews.
Max and Becky wander by early in our conversation. Max is whining. He’s doing a lot of that lately. Rebbe says this to Max:
“You need to learn something I learned when I was about your age: Get over it.”
He’s got a fabulous desert face, this messianic prophet of creosote country.
“All organized religions, Judaism included, have put God in a box,” he says. “In the Bible, man was created in the image of God. They’ve turned that upside down; they’re creating God in the image of man.”
I stand rapt, leaning against the 2-for-1 table. I absorb the gospel according to Rebbe right there by the TwinLab zinc lozenges, boxes of pistachio jello, cans of corn, Hershey’s sugar-free dark chocolate, McCormick beef stew seasoning packets and the nori wrappers.
I take to the French Grocer immediately. Next thing I know, Dottie Harding, who was working the counter when I came in, grabs my camera and points it at Rebbe and me.
She’s an artist, She came here, too, from Fredricksburg in the Hill Country via Louisiana. Dawn, her colleague, is working her first day on the job. Born in Southern California, she spent 25 years in Washington state.
Brian comes in from the Gage Hotel. He asks if they’ve got hummus.
“Someone wanted a vegetarian sandwich,” he explains.
I express my admiration of the symbiotic relationship between the grocery store and hotel kitchen in little Marathon. Simple and sweet, it seems.
“I’ll get yelled at for not thinking of it beforehand,” says Brian. “Then I’ll get yelled at again.”
What brings them here, to this obscure hamlet 60 miles due south of Fort Stockton with its Walmart and its steakhouses with pickup trucks lined up outside at lunchtime like a used-car lot? Halfway between I-10 and Big Bend, Marathon sits squarely between the sordid and the sublime.
I ask Rebbe about Marathon, and he starts ticking off bucolic parks where Max can run free and admire ducks. Rebbe also recommends pizza restaurants where we can grow fatter.
I say I want someone to talk to, not a walking guide book.
“Maybe you don’t want to talk to me,” he says.
He’s afraid I’ll find his perspective too negative.
“Until 15-20 years ago, this town was separated by the railroad track,” he says. “Mexicans on one side, Anglos on the other.”
But more importantly, he has a question for me: “Read your Bible much? ”
I admit I don’t, though I know I should, if only for literary and historical reasons.
He nods at Max.
“You need to teach him to honor his mother and father,” he says. “Otherwise when he’s old enough, he’ll say ‘I’m not going to listen to you! Why should I listen to you?’”
Oh, I’m certain of that.
Rebbe says we should’ve been here last weekend. The town threw a little shindig, a Yuletide party.
“The Mexicans and Anglos, they tolerate each other now,” he says. “Maybe they like each other. I don’t know, maybe they even love each other.”
He’s got a son, just back from Afghanistan, in Las Cruces. Maybe he’ll visit this weekend, he says.
Rebbe says he’s writing a book. This is one of the lines in his book:
“The truth is the truth. Regardless of whether you believe it or not, it’s the truth.”
“Religion makes people miserable,” he acknowledges. “The structure of my religion has set me free.”
I can dig that. At least the first part.
This is also what Rebbe says:
“Human history is shot. It’s over. There’s a scripture which says, ‘This generation shall not pass.’ A Biblical generation is 70 years. That’s referring to the generation from 1947-2017.”
So, the Mayans were off by five years?
It’s about time to part ways. We hug and say goodbye.
“Do not live your life in fear,:” Rebbe implores. “This is personal.”
That is his benediction.
But we’re all going to die.
2017 or bust.
Dottie and Dawn, they’re real sweethearts. I kind of want to escape to Marathon and get a job at the French Grocer, too.
Dottie owns a ranch, five acres in the countryside, 23 miles west of Terlingua and 16 miles south of Alpine.
She grew up in Laredo, of mixed Dutch and English heritage. She had Mexican nannies, and speaks Spanish without a hitch.
Nobody you meet here is likely to bore you. Nobody is likely to say boilerplate nonsense. They may indeed say nonsense, but it will be of a part with this desert landscape.
“I came out because I wanted to build sustainably,” Dottie says. “I don’t want to usurp the environment.”
She’s lived in Lake Charles and London. She came here from Fredricksburg, where she ran a restaurant and then an art gallery amid the sparkling limestone and bluebonnets of the Hill Country. Then she took a vacation to Big Bend and was bewitched by this land of hidden charms.
She’s doing her best to maintain a relationship of mutual respect with the natural environment. She’s got a rooftop water catchment system, and she’s got plenty of water. Now, however, she’s got a problem because her solar panels are on the fritz.
I ask if she had any supplemental power.
“I don’t want any pipes or wires in my walls,” she says. “I don’t like hidden agendas.”
She always wanted to move to Santa Fe, to pursue the artist’s dream. She’s here instead.
She finds the openness of the desert and the grandeur of the mountains inspirational.
“There’s nothing but the mountains and the scrub and the jackrabbits,“ she says. “And the stars! They hang so low it seems like you could reach up and grab a handful. I like to go home, sit back and a take a star bath.”
All I can say to that is, only a fool wouldn’t like to take a star bath in the cavernous darkness of Big Bend country.
I feel safe in saying there’s no other star bath like it in the continental United States.