A few years ago, I had a client who mentioned she had a vacation home in Marfa, TX that she rented out on HomeAway. Having been obsessed with a return trip to the world-renowned art hot spot since my last foray there, I offered to trade my design consultation services for some vacay time at her Marfa house. I never remembered to cash in on my end of the trade until this summer, when my BFF and I decided to take a little trip to celebrate our birthdays. In the ten years we’ve been besties, we’ve never gone anywhere together, so we were pretty excited to head west. Especially after I saw this:
If you’ve never been to Marfa (or heard of it for that matter), the town is completely unique in terms of aesthetic and lifestyle. Situated in far west Texas and boasting a population of just under 2,000, Marfa got its place on the art world map thanks to artist Donald Judd, known far and wide for his minimalist sculpture.
Judd’s steel cubes and concrete block forms are not at all my thing–in fact, they bore the holy hell out of me. But the way the whole town seems to have adopted his minimalist views after he put down roots here in the ’70s is very interesting to experience. It permeates everything from the local architecture, restaurant interiors, and residential landscaping, to social interaction. The locals keep tourists at arm’s length and despite fully-booked hotels, you will never see more than five or six people on the streets unless it’s feeding time at the Food Shark food truck. It feels like a ghost town, and if you’re an AT&T customer, you can just forget about cell phone usage, because it ain’t happenin’ here. There are only a handful of restaurants, no coffee shops, very little retail, no movie theaters, few bars–and among the businesses you do find, you wouldn’t believe how many of them are closed on the weekends. The town motto seems to be, “Marfa: Take What You Can Get, or Get the Hell Out.” That may not sound like a great vacation destination, but if you can get over your initial shock and dismay over these limitations and embrace the tranquility that ebbs in to fill the void, there’s a lot to love about visiting there.
With that in mind, here’s how I imagined our trip would go:
Leisurely strolls down Highland Avenue and San Antonio Street, traipsing casually in and out of art galleries. Drifting through gift boutiques at the Hotel Paisano. Bicycling to brunch. Driving up through Fort Davis and hitting a Star Party at the McDonald Observatory. Cooking a couple of rib eyes on my client’s high-end De’Longhi stove and roasting cauliflower in the convection oven so Karen and I could maintain our gluten-free, dairy-free, and sugar-free diets. Lounging on my client’s stark and minimalist patio, drinking wine over endless hours of girl talk. Relaxation. No schedules. No kids. No emails, texting, or Internets. Ahhhhhhh. That would’ve been g-r-e-a-t.
Here’s what happened:
We were almost killed before we even got there, when a moving van swerved into our lane going 80 mph on I-10. Never occurred to me that this might be an omen.
After what felt like a hundred hours, we finally arrived at my client’s house. Have you ever tried to drive across Texas? It takes for.ev.er. In the 429 miles between Austin and Marfa, there are about 351 miles of stick-straight highway and unchanging landscape. Also important to note: there are approximately three gas stations between Fredericksburg and Fort Stockton, so your gas tank and your bladder(s) will be put to the test, along with your ability to stay alert during such a long, monotonous drive.
But no biggie, we made it! My client’s house is so darn cute and Marfa-like.
I don’t think I could live in minimalist surroundings every day of my life, but I just loooooooove dipping my toe in every now and then. The calm that comes over you is just instantaneous. We kicked off our flip-flops and hunkered down in two mid-century inspired club chairs, watching a horse in the neighboring yard and drinking in the stillness. It was dead quiet.
After an hour or two, we were ready to fire up that awesome stove and get cracking on dinner. I walked over to preheat the oven so we could roast the cauliflower, but nothing happened other than the clicking of the striker. There was no hint of the sound or smell of gas, and there were no flames whooshing anywhere. Okay, we thought. Maybe no one has stayed here for a while and things are a little slow to fire? We scrounged for some matches and tried to light it that way. Nothing. Trying all of the burners, we came up empty.
It was a pretty fancy stove. Maybe it required some kind of secret handshake to get going? Was there a trick we didn’t know about? Checking the house guidebook left behind by the homeowners, we didn’t see anything about the stove at all, so we called the local house manager. Unfortunately, we got his voicemail. Plan B meant contacting my client back in Austin, which I hated to do. There’s nothing worse than trying to fix something from six and a half hours away.
“Is there a trick to the stove?” I texted. “It doesn’t appear that the gas is on.”
“No, it should just light,” she replied. “Is there hot water?”
“Ugh. That’s not good. I assume all the burners are not working?”
“And did you try a match to light the striker?”
“There is a hot water heater in the laundry room. Does it appear to be on?”
“Ummm, I know a lot about houses but nothing about water heaters!”
Feeling stupid, I took a few pictures of the valves and knobs on the water heater, texting them to my client to see if she could see anything amiss.
“Does this tell you anything?” I asked.
“Nope. 🙁 ”
My client was further perplexed because another rental party had vacated the house earlier in the day after three days there, and she thought they’d been cooking the entire time. In the absence of the local house manager, we put the steaks and everything back in the fridge, started calling restaurants to see if we could still get a table for dinner and lucked out at Maiya’s on the main street running through town.
With our diets, there were slim pickin’s on the Italian, pasta-heavy menu, but between a beautiful beet salad with toasted walnuts and a steak with chimichurri sauce, we were able to stay deliciously on track. We sat at a table in one of the two front windows and felt ourselves continue to unwind. “Life itself is the proper binge,” notes the restaurant’s website, quoting Julia Child. You could say we were bingeing on slow.
Driving back to the house around 10 pm, my only concern was: Do we want to drink wine or beer tonight? I had successfully eased into the rhythm of Marfa, but things soon took a turn for the worse.
Walking through the front gate, we noticed a distinctive aroma.
“Someone must be barbecuing,” Karen said. “Too bad we didn’t have a grill tonight!”
As I got closer to the door, I felt a wall of heat and the smell of gas hit me like a ton of bricks. It was so strong. Touching the glass doors, they felt like an oven.
“Oh my gawd, Karen–it’s the house!”
Running back to the car, I dialed 911 and we drove down the street to safety.
Did we make sure the dials on the stove were turned off?
OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG
A scary scene unfolded in my mind. An explosion of epic proportions. The phone call to my client. “Ummm, sorry, but I think I blew up your house.” The resulting litigation and intense ending to our client-designer relationship, followed by years of therapy to overcome my consequential stove-a-phobia. All of this panic is brought to you by circumstantial evidence (we fiddled with every knob on that fancy stove!) and the emergency services of Marfa, TX, who do not get bent out of shape by tales of oven-like heat and crazy headache-inducing gas fumes. They sent a couple of deputies out to make sure we weren’t loony tunes.
Though we were several houses away, the smell of gas wafted down to us, so we drove further down the road to a spot where we could still see my client’s house and waited for the cops to show up.
There were no flashing lights. No sirens trilling through the neighborhood. Just a dude in a truck with a flashlight and a badge, walking around the house like it was no big whoop. Shouldn’t they be sending the fire department or the gas company? While on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, I heard the deputy say, “I do smell gas,” over the police radio in the background. We sat in my car down the street, watching the flashlight circle around the house, our faces hot from panic and our hands shaking with fear. “I’m scared for that guy,” Karen said, echoing my own thoughts. “What if something happens to him?” Another deputy in a truck arrived. Now there were two of them to worry about.
Several scary minutes later, the cops drove their trucks over to our location to report their findings. The one talking looked like he was fresh out of high school.
“It doesn’t smell as bad inside the house,” he said. “The neighbors said a gas line died today and the gas company was out here today doing repairs. They’re gonna send someone out from Alpine, but it’ll be about 25 minutes before he gets here.” Dude was about as nervous as a quaalude addict. Ain’t no thang, his attitude seemed to suggest. Sure, the whole place could blow, but whatchagonnado? “All these pipes were put in the ground in 1964,” the other deputy threw in. “They’re all gonna have to be replaced at some point.” Both cops shrugged their shoulders and went on their way, leaving us standing alone in the dirt with our jaws on the ground and a promise to meet back up when the gas man got to town.
Blergity blerg! Don’t you people understand the term “emergency?”
Anticipating a lack of lodging for the evening, Karen started calling all of the local hotels in Marfa to see if we could get a room somewhere else. Between the choking fumes and being haunted by an Austin man who made numerous reports of possible gas leaks, and died recently after his house exploded despite the multiple reassurances of safety by the gas company, we were too scared to spend the night there. Everyone was fully booked except for one called the Riata Inn. In true Marfa fashion, the hotel reception desk had already closed at 10 o’clock, but the manager who lived onsite said he wasn’t going to bed until midnight. He’d let us rent a room if we could get there before that time.
We swatted bugs in the darkness as a couple of guys walked past us down the middle of the street. A stray dog approached the car and stood by Karen’s window, eyeing her like a piece of meat.
Twenty minutes passed and another local came walking toward us, with a lit cigarette in one hand and a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka in the other.
“Have a shot!” he said, thrusting his bottle through my open window. “You need to have a shot, because I’m drunk!” Dude couldn’t have been a day over eighteen, well below the drinking age.
“You need to put your cigarette out, man–there’s a gas leak! Don’t walk that way with your cigarette,” we urged, pointing in the direction of our rental.
“But I live down there. I’m just gonna walk home.”
Drunk dude. You must understand. You will die and take all the neighbors with you if you carry that lit cigarette down the street.
We tried a different tactic. “The cops are coming back, too,” I said, trying to appeal to his desire to avoid a minor-in-possession charge. “They’ll be coming back when the gas company shows up.”
“Oh, my f-ing tits!” Dude cried and stumbled back, thrusting his cigarette out of sight, like that was the part that would get him into trouble.
Oh my effing what? In a nervous effort to find comic relief in the midst of a stressful situation, Karen vowed to make OMFT her new catchphrase.
Around 11pm, the gas man showed up. He must have been in communication with the deputies, because they arrived simultaneously. They were talking through their truck windows when we walked up to get the scoop. “I’m going to go get a reader,” Gas Man said. He didn’t have one in his truck, so he was going to have to go to their office in the center of town to retrieve the instrument. WHAT?? Why the hell wouldn’t you bring that with you? Oh, damn this town and its nonchalant attitude! My client’s house is about to blow the eff up, but no worries, man. You go get your little dealie-whopper and we’ll just wait here and hope for the best.
The deputies mentioned the part about the 1964 pipes again and abandoned us a second time. It only takes about ten minutes to go from one end of Marfa to the other, so we continued our wait down the street the fifteen or twenty anxious minutes before Gas Man came back with his reader. After a visit inside the house, he rejoined us in our pitch-black ‘hood. “None of the burners on the stove were on,” he reassured us, and it wasn’t until that moment that I felt any kind of relief. “The leak is in the alley behind the house,” he said, and started to go into the age of the pipes.
We know, we know. 1964. Got it.
He walked us over to the alley to show us the leak location so I could report back to my client. “Here’s the leak,” he said, shining his flashlight on some spraypainted markings on the unpaved alley just a few feet from my client’s house. “We fixed this end of the pipe, but now we have to fix the rest of it,” he said, pointing down the alley in the direction of town. He said this over the din of a party in the next driveway, where people were drinking and smoking and having a good time. All it would take is for one drunk to decide to pee in the alley and flick a cigarette over here for the whole thing to blow sky high.
“When will that happen?” Karen asked.
Three days? You’re willing to wait three days to fix a known gas leak?
We at least felt safe enough to retrieve our belongings at this point, but were still worried about the trouble we’d had with the stove not lighting. Was there any chance of some kind of blockage in the pipes that would prohibit the gas from getting through the lines to the stove? If so, could there be a buildup somewhere that was dangerous? Gas man walked back into the house with us and we noticed that the gas fumes out front had dissipated. Phew! Maybe it’s okay now! Gas man led us back to the kitchen and turned on one of the stovetop burners. It lit up easy as you please. He tried the other burners with the same result. Mocked by a De’Longhi.
Gas man speculated that with the repairs that had taken place that day, there was probably some air in the pipes that needed to come out before the stove would operate properly. We thanked him for his trouble and walked him out the front door.
Once we stepped onto the porch, we were hit with gas fumes again, in full force. WTF?
Unfortunately, I do know someone who died in a gas explosion at home. My mom’s favorite boss died as a newlywed when his house blew up because of a gas leak. When you compound that experience with the news reports of the eight or so times that Austin man had called the gas company out only to have them shrug it off, it doesn’t give you a whole lot of confidence in someone who says it’s safe to stay in a house with a confirmed gas leak outside–whether they speak from professional experience or not. That man in Austin was 43 years old and left behind an eight-year old. I have an eight-year old and Karen has a five-year old and we have no desire to leave them motherless. So we didn’t stay at my client’s house that weekend. We just couldn’t take the risk, so we took our room at the Riata for one night and then upgraded to a nicer chain hotel in Alpine the next.
I’m happy to report that the rest of the weekend was safe and stress-free!