Marfa’s mysterious lights

The town of Marfa in Texas is close to the border with Mexico, and not so far from sections of Trump’s Wall, which I wrote about in my previous post.

It’s a small town, with some attractive Art Deco buildings, like the Palace, shown above. It has a rather classy 1950s style hotel, The Paisano, where the stars of the 1956 film “Giant” stayed whilst filming took place. It’s a stylish hotel, slightly old fashioned, certainly characterful. I’ve stayed there twice with family whilst on a road trip, and on the last visit our son and family were accommodated in the Elizabeth Taylor Suite – yes, she was in the film along with James Dean and Rock Hudson, and she stayed there! It was rather chinzty, definitely the lap of luxury in the 1950s, but maybe not to your taste if you like modern styles.

Marfa is suprisingly progressive for a small town, as it’s a centre for art and creativity of all kinds. There are enterprising galleries and craft shops, and the Chinati Foundation, an art museum, is based there in the surrounding desert. The grocery and health food shop I went into there was the best stocked I’ve ever seen, near galleries which are open for visitors to pop into and see what’s new in conceptual art. Not my favourite art form, but when in Marfa, go and take a look! This clean white, striking building is a gallery.P1060849 (2)

On the desert road leading to Marfa, there is a surprising art installation by the side of the dusty desert road. Prada in the desert displays shoes and handbags, but it’s not for real – or is it…? Maybe that’s what conceptual art is about? It’s signifcance ususally escapes me!P1060822

So what of Marfa’s mysterious lights? Out in the desert, a short drive from Marfa, there’s a viewing station which people can go to at night to see if they can spot any of the famous Marfa lights, which seem to beam and float across the surrounding desert and come from a certain direction. Some say that they’re the lights of UFOs flying across the desert, some say they’re the headlights of cars on a distant freeway and yet others claim they’re made by the release of a natural gas which appears in luminous globes. Basically no-one knows, but whatever, it’s a good story and certainly worth going to see them and checking them out.

When I went there is was night time and it was cold out in the desert. A dwindling group of tourists in the viewing area were getting excited at seeing lights floating and glowing across the darkened desert. I was there with my son and we both thought it was pretty obvious that they were distant car headlights. The viewing area emptied and we were almost the last there. Getting cold, we started to head back to the car and I took one last look, not in the direction of the car headlights phenomena, but looking to the left of the direction of the bright lights.

I saw a ghostly, faintly glowing globe of light quite close to where I was standing. It had an ethereal greenish glow and it lasted a matter of seconds before it disappeared. I’ve no idea what it was – maybe a bubble of natural gas – who knows? I’d seen A Marfa light, but whether or not it was one of THE Marfa lights, I can’t be sure.

It did for me though, and I was glad to get back into the warmth of the car and back to the 1950s ambience of The Paisano for our overnight stop.

Trump’s Wall

I’ve been watching a very good 2-parter on BBC about the borderland between the US and Mexico, and most specifically the wall which Trump thought was so important to be built, he even said he wanted Mexico to pay for it.

The presenter – Sue Perkins – is a likeable, friendly person who has a knack of getting close in to the people she meets on her trip, and her genuine warmth and interest come across as she explores the real life experience of what it’s like living with the wall, not just for the Mexicans, but the Americans too.

In Mexico, she meets with families, dances in the streets in the festival of the dead, helps prepare food for migrants wanting to cross the border into the US, and spends time with a family who are separated by the wall and can only touch the fingers of their loved ones on the other side through a metal mesh.

Hers is a moving and interesting account seen from both sides of the ugly rusty-brown metal wall and fencing along the boderlands, and it resonated strongly with me as I’ve been to some of the border towns on the US side, crossed (legally) over the Rio Grande to Mexico in a small rowing boat, and have worked as a volunteer in my granddaughter’s Houston school, helping Mexican children – amongst many other ethnicities – with reading and language skills.

Seeing more of Mexican life through the eyes of Sue Perkins, I was struck by how happy and sunny the Mexicans are, often in the face of hardship and emotional challenges. They seemed to want the very best for their children, the family unit was of great importance and in true Latino way, they had music and fire in their souls.

Although drug smuggling across the border was explored, with the help of a Texan sherrif in a Stetson, and with a gun at his hip, the series transcended the tales of drug cartels and focussed of many other aspects of Mexican life. It was fascinating and reminded me of the friendliness and warmth I’d experienced on my day trip to the small villages of Boquillas last year.

Part of Perkin’s journey on the US side covered a section of Big Bend National Park, which is right against the border, which is defined by the Rio Grande (see picture above). She went canoeing along it, down what looked like the Santa Elena canyon; we walked by it last year and it is definitely spectacular. In Big Bend, the mountains provide a natural wall, one which doesn’t prevent the free movement of the wildlife which live in this dramatic desert region.

I was struck by how much happier and sunnier the Mexicans she met were compared to the Americans, some of whom seemed quite dour and focussed on protecting themslves and their land. Now I don’t know if that was a deliberate ploy in the production and editing of the programme, but I do know from experience of road trips in this part of Texas that the people working a living on the land are tough, the womenfolk too, and that guns are a part of everydaylife. The exection to this on the trip was when she visited the town of Marfa. More on this next time, as it’s somewhere I’ve been to where there are mysterious lights to be seen…..

 

Chirk Aqueduct and Tunnel

A short 2 night break in our campervan saw us in Chirk, just over the border of Wales and not far from Wrexham. The campsite is surrounded by trees, is adjacent to the grounds of the National Trust Chirk Castle estate, and a short and pleasant woodland walk from the Chirk Aqueduct.

The aqueduct spans the valley between Wales and England, with green fields, grazing sheep and the RivP1080886er Ceiriog way below. It carries the Llangollen canal with the railway line, supported on arches, beside it. A stroll across the towpath, taking in the scenery and any passing canal boats along the way,  takes you into England.

Keep walking and you’ll reach a canalside pub; turn back and you’ll re-enter Wales, and on the other side of the aqueduct there is the Chirk Tunnel, it’s dark mouth waiting to swallow the narrowboats into its murky depths.

The tow path continues into the tunnel. It’s possible to walk its 420 metres/460 yards length, but a torch is required along with a fair bit of care as the path is narrow. There is a rail but in these days of social distancing it would be a bit daft to try it. And there is supposed to be a ghost somewhere in there too…..

No, we didn’t do it but we have done walked it with children, and most recently with granddaughter who surprised herself with her bravery. It’s not actually that scary as the tunnel is straight so the end is always in view. Boats have to pace themselves and have a light on while they’re chugging through, so there is sometimes a queue waiting to go enter.

And then, when they emerge from the tunnel on the Welsh side, passengers might catch the enticing aroma of chocolate, drifting from the chocolate factory, hidden behind the trees and on the edge of the town.

The Dee Estuary

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On  recent visit to the Wirral, staying there for a couple of nights in our campervan, we enjoyed walking on the Dee Estuary beaches. Tide out, plenty of space for our dog to run, sniff and explore, and a few birds about too, it was all very pleasant. Across the water from the Wirral side are lower Welsh hills and small towns, such a Flint.

The estuary leaves the boats moored there high and dry, then buoyed up again as the tide comes in. Low tide reveals rocks, mud, pools and the remains of maybe piers? Maybe breakwaters? Maybe the back bone of a buried dinosaur?

The sound of oystercatchers peep-peeping is unmistakable, but I need binoculars to find them as they potter about feeding on the beach. The warbling cry of a nearby curlew draws my attention as it obligingly stands still for a photo.

 

RSPB Deeside is located further up along the coast on the English side, and it’s a good place for birds, as is Parkgate, with its grassy, silted up seashore, promenade and ice cream parlours. Hen Harriers, Marsh Harriers, Short-eared owls, Merlins and Kestrels can be seen here, but patience is required, especially in winter months when it can get very cold taking part in one of the regular Raptor Watch events.

P1080832At the mouth of the estuary is Hilbre Island, which you can get to across the sands at low tide. A tide table is essential for this activity!  Further round the coast on the English side, is Liverpool, and nearby is Crosby Beach with the cast iron bodies of artist Antony Gormley forever looking out to sea, continually being covered then revealed by the rising and ebbing tides.

A day of birds and beasts

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Wetlands and Spanish Moss on trees, Brazos Bend State Park

Following our truncated stay and hasty departure from our visit to family in Houston ( to get back before all planes stopped flying, no other reason!) I’ve finally got around to looking at the photos I took there. So distracting and disorientating is this period of lockdown (what day is it…?) I’d forgotten about our family day out at Brazos Bend State Park and what we’d seen there.

It’s one of our “must go to” places when in Houston, so before our departure we had a family day together and enjoyed a walk around these wetlands. They are alligator- inhabited, a bit of a birder’s paradise, and they always delight us. We’ve seen roseate spoonbills, ibis, blue herons, bitterns catching fish just feet away from us, red-winged blackbirds and alligators basking on the banks.

Trees are festooned with Spanish Moss, noisy American coots hoot and squawk, anhingas (cormorant-like) sit with wings spread in the sunshine and large dark blue butterflies make their presence felt as their wings brush by.

P1080543There’s always something new to see, and this time it was the large brown furry creature in the marshy area, which some of our party thought was a beaver, some thought was a coypu, and some some just didn’t know. It’s taken me a while to get round to the ID job, and I had to check it out and do a spot of research too. It’s a nutria, which I’d not heard of before, but they’re quite common, are similar to beavers and are related to coypu, which are found in Europe. It’s the size and tail which give the answer – large body, rat-like tail. Beaver tails are flattened.

One down, one to go. What was that unusual bird with an orange and black head I saw lurking in the undergrowth? I took a few shots very quickly and managed to get enough for an ID. But what was it? I’d seen something like it before but couldn’t remember where.

P1080546Lockdown days offer more time to browse photographs. This bird looked vaguely familiar, so I tried a long shot and looked at photos I’d taken in Costa Rica, and there it was – a Crested Caracara. I’d seen one there. They’re listed as being seen in Texas, and specifically at Brazos Bend. It was quite  thrill to see this large bird – and not only that, on the way to Brazos by I spotted a male Hen Harrier (called a Northern Harrier in the US) flying low over a field.

This was probably the most significant sighting of the day for me. Hen Harriers are persecuted and endangered in the UK, and although I’ve been fortunate enough to see both male and female of this species on the wing in the UK, they still give me goosebumps on my neck when I do.