I sat beside my tent overlooking a vast expanse in the remote West Texas landscape and admired the sunset. It was hot and dry without an ounce of humidity in the air. The last time I had been here, my camping was a necessity. I was running from a hurricane. Running from the death and dying in my neighborhood. Five years ago, I took my last call at an unremarkable bar on an unremarkable street in New Orleans, paid my tab, grabbed my keys and left for good. The hurricane was hours away, and I had no real destination in mind. I simply loaded up my pick-up with food, water, and camping gear and hit the road. How far would a few hundred bucks get me in this mass exodus?
I made it to a remote campsite in Big Bend National Park in West Texas. I set up camp and came to love the lack of humidity and hot, dry nature of the landscape. I could not see a television, get a cell phone signal or hear a radio. I did not need to hear or see what I already knew about my beloved New Orleans. The city’s sunset was final. I knew the West Texas sunset would happen day after day. Of course, there were days that the dry, blustery wind felt like a hurricane, but it was predictable in its force. I could live with that. Camping in a tent was safer than the old, rotting boards of my New Orleans home. So each night, as I watched the sunset across the scrubby desert, I felt myself regret summer’s end. For me, it was a representation of the final sunset of a way of life.
By October of 2005, I was renting a permanent room at the Easter Egg Lodge in Terlingua. I made the last call at the Starlight Inn every night. I would finish my beer as the big moon rose, feel the breeze, have a tinge of longing for humidity in that wind, take a deep breath and try to smell the Gulf Coast Waters. Only salty sand. Then I’d make my way back to the Morgan Building that was craftily labeled a “cabin” to fool the unsuspecting tourist who rented a room at the cheap little lodge. Summer’s end in this West Texas town was not much to lament. It simply meant the nights would be cooler and the tourism crowd would be a little heavier. The desert heat is excruciating to many, but compared to the humidity of New Orleans, I thought it was perfect.
After five years, I finally made my way to a desert camp I had discovered and pitched my tent to watch the sunset. The colors were stunning, with streaks of yellow, orange, blue and gray. The scrubby plant life of the desert floor created a solitary foreground for my nightly show. This was my farewell to summer. It was my memorial to New Orleans. It was my longing for the humidity and happy clamor of a city alive with jazz, jive, and life. To hear last call as a trumpeter memorialized Louis Armstrong. To hear the raucous sounds of the wards. To taste the humid, rich flavors of the South. It made my heart fall like the final seconds of a blazing West Texas sunset. Sure. I could go back, but those vivid, happy memories were no more than that. I would rather sit in this dusty desert than return to a gentrified city of scrubbed culture and tourism. Give me back the children playing in the streets, the acrobats and dancers, the jazz funerals and the natural last call of summer as the children are tucked in early for their first day of school, and the revelers leave the city for another year of bragging and bawdy memories of a place they would hold beloved. No thanks. I’ll take this sunset. I’ll put my last longneck on the bar at the Starlight and feel the only humidity in the room as it gathers on that bottle and drips onto the dried out wood. I’ll hold my memories close and cherish the final sunset of an endless summer in New Orleans.