Coming to Alpine for a hardware store run from Marfa, I saw a banner for the annual two-day Artwalk Alpine. It seemed like the perfect time to pass through this small college town of west Texas. I arrived on Friday morning after sleeping at the Marfa Lights viewing area (still no sign of the Marfa Lights – just highway lights from highway 67 to Presidio), and got the parking spot I had scoped out a couple nights before on Google Maps/Street view with the help of Dione, a local woman who works at El Cosmico, where we just came from.
The parking spot was right on the main eastbound drag through town, right in front of the train station, where all the food vendors for the event were set up in the parking lot. The sidewalk was wide, and honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better parking spot. I had done some research on local ordinances, and it seemed legal to sleep in your vehicle and park it for a few days, and they followed Texas health laws, which have exemptions for health permits for private homes – PERFECT!
I have been a little nervous about coming to Texas. Most of the places I’ve spent time in my past have their ideas of what Texas is – a bigoted, racist, conservative, ignorant bunch of cowboys. Trying not to stick to any preconceived notions on who Texans are, one of my first interactions was with a rancher named Rusty, who came for tea. Rusty looked the part with a cowboy hat, blue jeans, rolling tobacco, and an old jeep with a rifle strapped to it. I asked him when the last time he used his rifle was. “Last week. I shot a wild pig.” “Did you eat it?” “No, but I gave it to a friend. I usually eat them, or give them to friends.” I liked Rusty. He shared knowledge with me on how to cross Border Patrol Checkpoints, the unwritten rule of never messing with another man’s hat in Texas, and other golden wisdom.
As the event moved on, more and more people came in. Rusty’s friend Julian spent some time, and ultimately brought a gift of mesquite firewood, of which he touted the qualities for burning in my wood stove. Many students of the local college, Sul Ross, came aboard to share a cuppa or two and some conversation. A world-traveler/motorcycle-rider/linguist named Asher came and shared his stories of romance of the road. We had live saxophone, live accordion, live banjo, live ukulele…. Whew!
The tea bus became a hangout for many kids in the 10-13 year old range. It was almost like they ran the place for an hour here, or an hour there. They helped choose what teas to make, strummed on my new ukulele (thanks for the gift, Keith!), and brought a bunch of youthful energy. One of the most interesting interactions was when the kids found the Gift & Take moneybox. They said, “Wait, we can take this?” “Yes, that box is there for anyone to put in, and anyone to take out. If you feel like you need it more than the next person, then you can take it. But if you feel like you have something to offer the next person who is in need, then you can put in.” Within 15 minutes, the Gift & Take was empty of all the cash. When I realized this, and then saw the kids all buying cotton candy, I began to think about how to more effectively instill personal responsibility into these kids. I was hoping that just giving them the power to make the decision for themselves on whether they deserved or needed it more than the next person would create that sense of personal responsibility, and they would either take little, take none, or put in. In my mind (and I could’ve been wrong), they weren’t the ones who needed it the most – especially if they were just going to buy cotton candy with it.
When they eventually came back, I asked them if they thought that taking all the cash that was in there and spending it on cotton candy was the responsible thing to do – and if that they thought the needed that, say, more than a homeless person who was hungry? Of course, they knew the answer. Some of them offered me money. I told them that it wasn’t my money that they took – that the Gift & Take is kind of like a community bank. Ultimately, some of them put money back in, and I’m sure it made them all think about their own personal responsibility to the community. Even some folks who witnessed this whole interaction, and were surprised when I was so open about the taking of money, saw the lesson instilled in these kids and told me so later.
One day turned into the next. It felt good to awake right there in downtown Alpine to the food vendors preparing their day. I was parked right by a couple who run a wood-fired pizza trailer, and I looked out to see them making dough and getting ready. It reminded me of my prized moments of waking up at festivals to see the tea zone outside my window starting to buzz with activity as I take my time to fully awaken.
A surprise rain storm that made me close the handicap door and windows made the tea bus a little more intimate with some train-riding musicians showing up at the perfect moment to share hot tea and good music in Edna. We talked trains and travel, anarchy and personal responsibility. One of my favorite moments was later when one of the train-riders – Summer, an 18-year-old who has been on the road for three years – showed up when I had a group of four or five letter-jacket-wearing high-school senior girls enjoying a hot cuppa tea. Being of the same age as Summer, the high-schoolers had an amazing moment of mind-opening when they began to hear about Summer’s experiences on the road. They saw a girl who had grasped life and lived it in the way she wanted – riding the rail, playing music for money, touring Europe. Even thought the specifics of how she had done it might not be how some of these other girls would want it, it definitely made them realize that there are other ways of living life than just following the path that has been laid out before you. Among many deep and important things, we talked about the importance of surveying your options in life – even the ones that you didn’t know existed before – and then making the decision to live the life you not only want to live, but also believe wholeheartedly in.
This little Texas town provided more variety of people, more kind and interested people, and consumed more cups of tea than I thought possible. Over the course of two days, I served over 500 cups of tea. Now I take the day of to recuperate from two days of 12-14 hours of tea serving, hosting, washing, hauling water, and interacting with strangers. I am beat!
Thank you sooo much to Katie and John for the good company, travel advice, and a place to call home temporarily. Thanks to Olaf for the insistence of giving me $10 to buy a wood-fired pizza, and to Jake for trying to not accept the money for the pizza. Thanks to the strangers who shared food in many forms (I was well fed!). Thanks to Julian for the mesquite. And thanks to this little Texas town for welcoming the tea bus in such a generous and accepting way!