This piece is an amalgamation of a couple of pieces I wrote for our Amtrak zine which you can buy from us here or from Pioneer’s Press here (Pioneer’s press should be cheaper shipping than us if you are in the USA)
Marfa’s a tiny city in far West Texas with more art galleries than grocery stores, and only one bar; the lost horse saloon.
The Lost Horse Saloon in isn’t real life. It’s a 1950s writer describing a cowboy bar,adapted into a film by Vincent Gallo in the early noughties. It’s the most remote hipster bar in the world.
Sophie and I sat in the garden, they had a bar serving drinks outside as well as in. We abandoned our conversation (it’s alright to do that when you’re spending every minute of every day together) to observe two men in cowboy hats stood by the bar. One was about 6ft 4 and skinny as a beanpole and the other was almost a foot shorter and just as thin. The taller guy had a black hat, dark hair, a brooding weathered face, a 70s moustache, and a black eyepatch slung over one eye. He looked like he’d been teleported straight out of an old Western film, you start the film convinced he’s the baddest guy in town but by the final act he’s the one you’re rooting the hardest for. The shorter guy had lighter brown hair and a white cowboy hat, he had more of a Netflix TV show cowboy vibe, something set in Montana where his love interest would have a swishy blonde ponytail and wear tight jeans.
The Netflix cowboy came over and introduced himself to us, “Dusty Sparrow”. It’s not his real name, I’m not allowed to use that. His real name is similar to this, only way cooler. He doffed his hat and shook our hands, we were charmed before we had any good reason to be. Like a kidnapper telling children he had puppies in the van he announced to us he was on his way to see some wild horses he’d just caught near Mexico, and invited us to go with him. “They need to spend some time around humans”. Our fear of missing out on a possible adventure overshadowed any fear we might have of going off into the Texas wilderness with a total stranger and we eagerly agreed to go.
Dusty bumped into a woman he knew as we were leaving the bar, and told her to join us. Her name was Cayatana and she was so beautiful that it was a bit physically painful to look at her, like staring straight at the sun or having someone scream all your own physical shortcomings and insecurities shrilly into both ears. Dark shiny hair that skimmed the waistband of her jean shorts, strong tanned legs and the kind of calm smile it takes me 3 valium to get close to achieving. Dusty drove up front in his big yellow truck with Cayatana, and we followed behind, and discussed the possibility that he might spend the rest of his afternoon carving our bodies up and peeling off our faces to use as masks. Our adrenaline rose every time we caught him grinning at us like a maniac in his wing mirror. The longer we drove the more it seemed obvious to me that we were about to be murdered, he had used the wild horses as bait and the beautiful woman to reassure us he was not a menace to our gender. We’d be yesterday’s dateline special in no time.
I was relieved when we got to a field that had a herd of actual real breathing wild horses milling around and a corral. We still weren’t in the clear though. He could be telling the truth about the horses and still murder us. Maybe horses eat human remains like pigs do, bones and all. Nobody would ever know what had happened to us. I should have taken a photo of him and emailed it to my mum before we left The Lost Horse Saloon, asked her to add it to the list of people the police should question if I’m ever to go missing – my “murder list”. Not that the saloon had wi-fi. I should have at least written his name inside my diary, his real name that I’m not allowed to use.
We ventured nervously into the field, helped move them into the corral with pounding hearts, and then watched from the edges as Cayatana played music from her phone and danced for a horse. “They like music”, she told us whilst her hips swung easily and she did some modern, vice magazine version of horse whispered using electronica music. It wasn’t long before Sophie and I cowboyed up ourselves and were helping Dusty to rope his newly acquired horses. Looming storm clouds appeared and started to gallop across the sky, bolts of lightning striking all around us and getting closer, I told Sophie we had to get in the car before I got struck and fried alive (I have an arrogant phobia/belief that I am special enough to being killed by lightning strike). There were too many potential ways to meet my maker in that one field. We said goodbye and promised to meet the two of them back at the bar later and somehow we left alive; Dusty didn’t slay us, lightning didn’t strike us and wild horses didn’t drag us away.
Back at the Lost Horse Saloon later that night Sophie made made friends with some dude from Austin and his female friend and I sat talking to Dusty (who had finished moving horses around a field but come to the bar without Cayatana). Knocking back drinks as our knees touched, he was getting better looking the longer we talked. I stopped caring about whether or not he wanted to cut my tongue out and put it in a box with the tongues of 34 other stupid English tourists, and just thought about tongues inside mouths instead and resenting that I had a boyfriend. The storm clouds had cleared and there were stars to be seen in the sky, and a decision was made without any of us needing to speak about it; we were heading to the Marfa lights viewing area. There were 7 of us in total bundled in to different cars, me and Sophie and Dusty and four new friends we had acquired back at the bar.
I can’t remember any of those other 4 people’s names now and I would have a hard time picking them out of a line up but we were all best friends for the night, bonded by the beauty of the shooting stars and mysterious lights and faraway storms we watched. I had drunk the perfect amount to be watching the skies with a group of strangers, I was giddy and merry but not puking anywhere or taking my clothes off or telling anybody that Da Vinci should draw around their head for the perfect circle. I lay my head down on the damp concrete ground with Sophie on one side and Dusty on the other and admired the milky way and the leftover perseids shooting above me, and only sat up straight when the others excitedly announced that they could see the Marfa lights in the distance.
The Marfa lights are also known as the ghost lights, mystery lights, and Chianti lights. Because the whole of Marfa is crackling with magic, you don’t question the ghost lights. They seem like a totally appropriate part of the landscape and the skies, as would UFOs or balls of fire. Maybe it’s because the vastness of the place stirs up your imagination and gives wild and exciting shapes to things you would have dismissed in the grey drudgery of a different location. The lights have been seen by locals and tourists alike for years and many “rational” explanations have been offered for what they could be. I haven’t bothered reading them and I don’t want to. I cling much harder to magic and mystery than reason and logic. We spent our childhoods scrambling to kill Father Christmas and the tooth fairy in order to appear more grown up to our peers. Well, I am a grown up now and I want to live in a world where not everything can be explained away.
We bid adieu to our new friends without swapping any kind of contact details and followed the big yellow truck once more. We hadn’t booked anywhere to sleep in Marfa, no airbnb or hotel. The best days and nights of my life have almost always been followed by either no sleep or a slumber so uncomfortable it doesn’t meet the criteria for the word sleep so I was more than happy to spend the night sleeping, or trying to, in our rental car parked up next to Dusty and the herd. En route back to the field a cop car overtook us to pull Dusty over, and paranoid about getting pulled over ourselves we took the opportunity to turn around and head back into town. I’m a pretty law abiding adult, if you don’t count some mini cheese I’ve eaten in supermarkets and not paid for, but the police make me paranoid. I don’t know if it’s a leftover from having a criminal parent ( and accompanying him on criminal activities when I was a kid) but I always feel like I’ve done something wrong and if I’m searched for long enough they’ll find something incriminating.
We parked the car up next to a church, and sat talking about how long we might have to sit there until we could drive back and if we would know the way. Marfa at 2am is quiet enough that you can feel a car approaching, we reclined our seats and slunk down into them, turned the interior lights off and prayed that the cop wouldn’t come over when we heard his car pulling up. He shone his torch into the window before tapping on it, we sheepishly rolled the window down. “I’m done with your friend, you can go back to him”, he laughed. He didn’t search the trunk/boot, he didn’t breathalyze Sophie, and weirdly he didn’t even ask us why we had suspiciously driven away when he pulled our friend over.
Back at the field Dusty was polite enough not to ask us what had driven us to be such complete and utter sissies. He pulled out his camp bed and slept by the exhaust of his truck while we lay back on our seats and covered our cold bodies with Amtrak blankets and unworn clothes. I tossed and turned and grabbed bits of sleep wherever I could take them, and I didn’t begrudge Sophie when she woke me up at 4am to ask if I could see the giant/murderer/ghost creeping around outside the car. I didn’t do much but grunt at her that it was nothing and to go back to sleep though. That same magic that seeps into your veins when you’re in Marfa and causes you to deem car headlight reflections paranormal and beautiful can turn shadows of horses into ogres in the middle of the night. (Sophie wrote a really beautiful piece about this in the zine.)
There’s a certain kind of sweat you get on where sleeping in cars in the desert and I woke up drenched in that. Try adding that to the musky smell of wild horses you’ve been petting, and sticky sweet booze and general body odour and you’ll get a real ripe perfume. Dusty, way too jovial in the glare of the morning sun to not be some kind of psychopath, offered to give me a cowboy shower. While this sounds like a great name for some kind of degrading sex move I haven’t heard of yet, it’s actually just a pintsize former mormon cowboy standing on the edge of his truck and tipping a bucket of water over you. Soaked to the bone and almost as happy as Dusty I said goodbye to the horses and all three of us got into the car together to head to a ghost town on the border of Mexico.