In South Texas, our cold snaps are brief and bitter, but if the cold brings ice, we shut the town down and sit in our houses with big thick books on our laps. We wait until the afternoon, when the sun almost always comes out, and it’s all over for another five or six years. When we planned our vacation to the Big Bend area of West Texas, we knew there was a possibility it would be colder than home, but I don’t believe we were prepared for the reality of cold, truly cold, nasty, lasting nasty, weather.
Our first stop, Marathon, was cold but dry. Marathon is a gateway to Big Bend National Park, and there is one hotel, The Gage, and one grocery store, The French Grocer. The hotel has a restaurant and a bar, and there are a couple of other places open for breakfast. There’s a post office, a liquor store, and a couple of gift shops and a couple of art galleries. And that’s pretty much it.
The next morning we decided Alpine, the largest town in the region, was the best option for shopping. Alpine has a higher elevation in the area, and as we approached, the roads started to ice over and the surrounding landscape got whiter and whiter. It was beautiful and disconcerting. A sign on the side of the road warned of black ice. We drove slowly, our more experienced fellow travelers passing us like Apollo Ono overtaking a Jamaican speed skater.
We shopped for thirty minutes, clinging to one another to keep from slipping on the ice. With all entertainment possibilities exhausted, we drove back to Marathon.
The power was out in Marathon, but the bar was open, so we went there and drank. Sitting near the propane fire place, sipping on a margarita, we had a delightful conversation with a couple who owned a vacation home in the area. The man told us about the old feldspar mine, and that it once had up to 8,000 employees. The only background sound was the occasional shush of the fire. How long had it been since we sat and talked to someone, no phones to check, no television to sneak an occasional glance at, nothing but the fire and our voices?
Later, as we flicked our flashlights around the shelves at the French Grocer, the person who worked there told us the last time the power had gone out, it had taken three days to restore it. They said they were sorry, they needed to keep the refrigerator doors closed, so we bought our supper from their shelves; moon pie, cheese sticks (for me), beanie weenies (for SH) and those powdered sugar donuts. We ate by flashlight in our room, bundled on more clothes and got in bed. We would read for a while, then huddle up close and discuss how it must have been before people had power. We talked about the places we want to see in the next calendar year. We fell asleep before nine o’clock, rising long after the sun had come up. When was the last time either one of us slept for more than eight hours?
We returned to Alpine the next morning, hoping we’d be able to get a meal since the power was still out in Marathon. The drive was, again, beautiful and terrifying. There were several places on the side of the road where a car had obviously plowed into the ditch, and we saw a brown truck all banged up, with evidence it had flipped over and skidded. Someone had taped a yellow tarp over the side windows before abandoning it on the side of the road.
As we drove, we could also see large sections of downed power lines. While some utility vehicles rested in the fields, it was clear it would be next to impossible to fix the immense amount of damage properly until the ground and power lines were no longer frozen. We weren’t surprised to find the power was out for about half of the city of Alpine.
Judy’s Bread and Breakfast appeared to be the only port in the storm. They were open and doing a bustling business. The waitress showed us to our table, stating the credit card machine wasn’t working, we’d have to pay cash. She was the only waitress, and Judy herself was the lone cook. I noticed a man pouring coffee for people, but he went around to a few tables and then sat down, so he was a guest who decided to pitch in for a while.
The waitress brought us two cups of coffee. When we asked to order our meal, her face read overwhelmed. The room was packed and more people were entering.
I’m a writer, and I listen. I watch. And on this day, in Judy’s Bread and Breakfast, I witnessed a true community.
Elizabeth Sapp and her three small children, Hunter, Dalton, and Kirsten, sat at a table near us. When the waitress approached, she did the same thing we’d done and told the waitress her order. I heard her say, “Yes she can, I used to work here. Over hard. Write down OH.” The waitress left Elizabeth’s table, and Elizabeth watched her thoughtfully. She told her children, “Sit right here.” She went to the counter and asked Judy if she could help.
While Elizabeth handed around the coffee and delivered food, the children sat quietly at the table waiting for their breakfast. As their mother worked to meet the needs of the customers, the children started to fidget. I thought about moving to the table to keep them company, but Elizabeth didn’t know me; no one in the restaurant knew me, except for SH. I didn’t want to scare the children or their mother, but I knew her actions were extraordinary and important. She was caring for a bunch of cold, powerless, hungry people, caring for them so they wouldn’t be broken within the space of this small apocalypse. Someone should see to her children so she could do what was necessary.
Elane V. Scott was sitting at a nearby table as well. She left the conversation at her own table to sit with the children. Handing them pens and paper, she spoke softly as they started to scribble. I watched Hunter, Dalton, and Kirsten turn their curious faces into Elane’s. Elizabeth drifted over to the table to make sure her children were in good hands, and when she knew her brood was well tended, she continued to serve her community.
A young couple entered the restaurant with a baby. There was only one table available and it hadn’t been bussed. A customer stood up and told the couple about the credit machine. He cleared the table and returned with a rag to wipe it down. A third man came by and poured us more coffee.
I wondered about Judy herself, and all the hard work, relationship building, and years of compassion she must have poured into her community. The people in this place, in this time of crisis, were used to pulling together. The room was filled with quiet confidence and the assumption that acting like a neighbor is expected. “If there’s ever an apocalypse,” I thought, “I’m coming to Alpine.”
The house we’d reserved had no power or water, so with no place to stay, we moved on to Marfa, and found the last hotel room they offered. The weather was warming, and the town had power as well as gas. That evening, we went to see the Marfa Lights. We’ve been there many times, and I confess myself a skeptic, but I saw them then; little flashes, slashes, and slithers of light. The moon hung above us in casual splendor.
The next day we picked up our daughter and her husband, who’d been staying with a group of friends and planning to spend three more nights with us at the other rental. As we drove home, SH said, “You know how you before Christmas is your least favorite time of year? Well, this is mine. It’s still cold outside, and the Christmas lights get put away and everybody leaves, and I have to go back to work.”
Everybody leaves, including the two who slept in the back seat of our car. In a couple of days they would head back to their lives on the other side of the country, and it would just be the two of us again. We’ve been married for thirty years, and I’d never understood why he was so resistant to putting up the Christmas tree. When would we again be quiet enough in ourselves and in each other to reveal these truths to one another? How long would it we before we were this gushy, this warm, this unfrozen?
Today, January 7, the house is quiet. The children have been delivered to the airport, and Super H is back to his job. A Blue Norther swept across South Texas this afternoon, and all the plants had to be covered. The dogs need their heater and heat lamp. Hot meat loaf and mashed potatoes for supper. I see his car coming up the driveway. Right before he walks through the door, I hurry into the living room and turn on the Christmas tree lights.