• Gretel Enck

Looking for Signs

The third good thing I did in Marfa this time, in addition to the poetry and the flower quest, was to go looking for those dang 1930s aerial navigation arrows.


What a confounding adventure. Three of them are a couple hours’ drive north of Marfa. One I suspected and confirmed was down a maze of dirt roads on private land, gated off to us Yankees and ferners. But two of them are right alongside the east/west highway from Carlsbad to El Paso.


I’d put a pin in the map on my phone with the coordinates of the Salt Flat arrow. For that reason alone, it would have been easy to find. But it was easy anyway. Turns out, Salt Flat is an active settlement with the Salt Flat Café and bus station, and I expect the post office as well in that building. The sign said Open so I went on in, a bit early for lunch yet. I asked the woman about the arrow as I took a soda from the fridge, happy to buy something for a little information. Yes, the arrow was out back, she said. Why did I want to know? Internet story, I explained. She didn’t have time to walk me out to it, she was making lunch for the crew. I took this to mean the pipe-laying crew I’d seen working down the road. I asked if I could walk myself out there. She led me out the door and pointed through the garage and toward the red shed and to the left. We went back inside and I paid for my soda. I asked her about the others. Yes, the one was far beyond locked gates. But the other one on the highway was just behind the W. I should have asked for clarification on “just behind the W,” but she seemed busy.


I walked myself and my soda out through the garage and toward the red shed and to the left. Wasn’t sure where to go from there, I was looking off in the distance for some indication. Then I noticed very close the small rusty red patch of concrete. Oh, there it is, right there. Much smaller than I expected—maybe 20 feet long. I walked around it and took pictures and was wholly unimpressed. The only thing that impressed me was the VORTAC out across the field—obviously the location of the arrow had stood the test of time, even if its size brought into question its original usefulness. When I was done, I popped back in the café and told the woman she was right, not much to see, but I was much obliged. I use that term “much obliged” much more as a Texan than I ever have before. Part of my cultural camouflage?


Then I drove the thirty miles or so up the road to where I hoped I’d find the next arrow, the Hudspeth arrow. Behind the W, that was my sign. I drove and drove, past where I thought it might be, unable to plug it into my phone map due to lack of anything resembling a signal. Finally I came to the sign for the Double U Ranch. Oh, Double U, of course. But what did “behind the Double U” mean? I figured I must be close, so I drove up and down a ten mile section of highway a couple of times looking for clues. I had a print-out of the arrow and immediate surroundings, but the road looked the same for miles. Across the road from my arrow, in the print-out, I could see the lines of the power line road and another dirt road that crossed it. But nowhere on the landscape could I find a similar pattern.


Finally I drove back to the pull-off to the Double U, assuming I'd misunderstood the "behind" part of the woman's statement--but obviously right about the Double U. I zoomed in to the map on my phone that showed me blinking. I zoomed in so far, and obviously that map signal was working, that I suddenly was faced with the same road pattern as I saw on my print-out. I was practically sitting on the arrow, according to the similarities between what I saw on my phone map and what was shown on the print-out. I turned out and drove maybe a mile, mile and a half, down the road, realized I’d overshot the arrow, turned around and pulled over. As soon as I was next to it, it was very easy to see—not more than a few steps beyond the right-of-way fence. I parked the car and walked over to it. Even though I could easily take good pictures, I felt the need to crawl through the barb-wire fence and stand on it and walk all around it. Nearly identical to the first: crumbling concrete in a faded rusty red color, three sections, pointing east. I took some pictures and then headed home.


The long, lovely, lonely drive back to Marfa gave me plenty of time to consider the intention of the arrows, the night flights of mail planes, the folly. And why are they still there after all these years. The woman’s question: why am I interested in the arrow? My question back: why have you kept it? What is the arrow’s story? I’ll give it this much: it’s steadfast in its direction. More than I can say for myself. I go south 14 hours, I go north 14 hours. The wind blew tumbleweeds into my car from the west. The meteorite shot east to southwest. The surprised coyote on the road ran straight ahead along the center line an unnaturally long time before turning left and ducking into the shrubbery around the cattle pen, looking back at me. And somewhere I was dazzled, and I don’t know which direction it came from or how to hold it. I’m just out on the highway looking for signs.

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