Written and photographed by Beatrice Helman
Texas is huge. In Texas, you can drive for two hours and not see another car the entire time. You can pass by miles and miles of railroad without seeing a train and through towns that appear like jewels on the horizon. You can pee on the side of the road. Don’t try to send mail on the weekends. The post office is closed. If you want to see a movie in Alpine, Texas, there is one option and it is shown twice, once at 6:30PM and once at 9:30PM. Restaurants close and open according to who woke up that day, who got sick and who had better things to do. Everything is wide there. The burritos are wide, the roads are wide, and the land is wide. Huge expanses of tumbleweed and prickly pear that stretch for hours. The Big Bend Yucca weeps silver and blue leaves, like daggers, from its head. They grow to be fifteen feet tall, and, if the conditions are right, bloom lilies the color of cream. When the sun starts to sink, around four thirty in the winter, thousands of cacti are aflame in the amber light. The sun reaches for the horizon, grasping at it with delicate fingers, slipping away, dripping like honey.
It took a week to drive from Los Angeles, California to Austin, Texas. We stopped in Arizona and in New Mexico, and spent two nights sleeping in a trailer underneath the web of stars. I was terrified of the quiet. Twenty degrees in the desert is equivalent to five degrees in the city. The wind is wild, whipping and thrashing, with no mercy. There are no bodies to block it, no brick walls, no apartment buildings. No office buildings. Instead, it rages on.
I had always been a more is more girl. Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I wanted more; I ached for the hustle and bustle, the constant current, the tide pulling me downstream. Everywhere I looked, signs pointed to the big city as the place where things happened. It was where art was being made, where writers were writing about their feelings, their pains and losses. It was where sprouts grow into trees, dropping their seeds, starting the process all over again. My mother had gotten by as a twenty two year old in New York by selling headbands on the street, and eventually in a department store. I loved her tales of her tiny apartment, of staying up all night hand gluing flowers and beads, of buying supplies in bulk and having to drag it home on the subway. I was anxious to find out what my headband would be.
I moved to Manhattan when I was eighteen. When people asked me what I was inspired by, I would look at them like they were crazy. New York, I would say. There’s always something happening. There were art shows, book readings, book signings, parties I was an was not invited to, thousands of strangers on the street. I was in the place where things were happening. I was, if not at, then at least twenty blocks below, fashion week. But I was still there. If someone asked me what I did for work, I said anything, everything. After years of living in a city that shut down at ten o’clock, I was obsessed with the fact that New York stays awake. In New York, you can order dumplings at six thirty in the morning and get pastrami at midnight. For everyone who goes to sleep, there is someone who is staying up. It was the kind of pressure I was looking for. There was a constant sense of urgency. I started to wake up when the sun woke up, out of the fear that if I didn’t, I would be wasting precious hours that could have been spent answering emails, taking photographs, checking out the latest coffee shop in my neighborhood. I felt that if I left the city, the world would move on without me, that I would be left behind, sitting on the curb. I started to feel a deep root of anxiety that dug its roots down, further and further into my gut. And for a long time, I thought it was supposed to be there.
I began dealing with that anxiety by writing to do lists. There was something comforting about seeing every single thing I had to do laid out there on the page, contained to a physical space. My to do lists were gorgeous, covered in illustrations and sparkly stickers. They were labelled with dates and notes to myself that say things like, Actually Do Everything On This List. Doing things is fun! Bea, Do Not Ignore The Hard Things On This List. Please, Please Cross Things Off. I was very careful and wrote them in my best handwriting. They were pages long. Doing them was absolutely impossible. By the time that I was rewriting the list every two or three days, I was adding a hundred percent more than I was crossing off. I got into graduate school, and added a homework section to the list.
There’s something meditative about driving, or at least, being in the passengers seat, watching the world go by. I had never driven so far on purpose, or been without my email for so long. In New Mexico the gas stations soared with huge rafters and signs that reached hundreds of feet high. In Arizona, the roads wound and wound through forests of shrubs, down mountains and around rusty copper mines, a rainbow of reds. Outside of the city, the sky breathed like a giant organ, sending clouds soaring with one exhale. It was almost unbearably clear. There were no tall buildings. No traffic, no people. It was hard to find a town with more than one general store open or a thousand people. When we parked and bought lunch, it was easy to walk down the street. There were no lines, and nobody fighting over who knew about this spot first. My brain started to fill out like a sponge, sopping up the air, the dirt, the silence. I didn’t realize that my shoulders had been creeping towards my ears, but I felt them down shift. At night, speeding down the highway, I liked the dark, soft like velvet. Falling asleep without the flashing of streetlights and the glow of a city, I fell asleep faster. I realized I liked not being able to order dumplings at two in the morning. I liked having to make the effort, to find my food and my way. I liked maps. The less I had the internet, the more I valued it. I started waking up earlier, not because I was afraid of all the things I would miss if I didn’t, but because I wanted to. I stretched and screamed into the open air. I started scribbling in my notebook, writing that the weeds looked like oatmeal and that I wanted to film everything, freeze it in my camera. I went through roll after roll of thirty-five millimeter film, on a camera that had sat silently in my Brooklyn apartment for weeks. I was obsessed with the horizon line. I piled ideas for stories on top of each other, sketching out the gas stations we drove by, the ranches with their elaborately wrought gates, leading to roads that disappeared into the desert. I wanted to write. I wanted to draw.
All of a sudden, without the pressure of finding and figuring out what kind of a shape I would take in a city housing millions, I started to expand. I felt fluid, sticking my head into the wind and feeling my heart beat. Nobody cared about what I was doing. They were too busy doing what they were doing. I started crossing things off my to do list.
I could see for miles in the desert.
I got back to New York and started going about my day slowly. I started to fill out the ideas that I had had during the six hour stretches on the road, with nothing but sand and brush in sight. I dreamt about talking cacti and instead of waking up, slept long enough to hear their conversations. I stopped feeling badly about the fact that I had always been a house cat, more familiar with staying in at night than going out. I stopped wondering about what other people were doing.
I still like to keep my lists. I still like to write everything down, to see it all bare on the page. I still like to write them neatly and I still draw on them. I still write them down every week and look forward to it. I still like to cross things off, and I’m still bad at remembering to do half of the things that are one them. I still add more than I take off.
But I really don’t mind.
This story was first published in Issue 5: Endurance.