It’s Monday night and the drive from El Paso started out hypnotizing, the wind sorcerer conjuring up dirt cyclones to dance on the desert’s horizon. Despite the cinematic scenery, the ride is already pressing my patience an hour in. There is a strategy to road trips I don’t really get other than the shared sense — don’t become roadkill. I arrive in Marfa just after 10 p.m.
The Texas border town sits 30.3095 degrees north and 104.0206 degrees west. It’s like most small Texas towns: country bars, a main street, an isolated stop light that dictates the proclivities of the lawman. Except this one is different Marfa is an artistic alternative for well-intentioned travelers and scene-stealing outsiders. It’s also home to freelance writer Rachel Monroe.
Her stories are a Greyhound bus full of experience. Strangers, family members, rumors — all paving the way for new copy. She is immersive, often bordering on obsessive, when it comes to writing. “Have You Ever Thought about Killing Someone?” is a piece she spent the better part of a year on. Exploring fetishism and the loneliness of a man obsessed with his own murder, Rachel explains this thoroughly and through the eyes of his killer. “If he had known then what he knows today, thanks to more than a decade spent among the perverts and neo-Nazis and idiots and masterminds of federal prison, Mike Baker would have been able to tell exactly what Doc was the first time he set eyes on him. That’s one thing you can say about being locked up: It’s a great way to learn about human nature.”
Rachel sits shotgun in the rented sedan as I roll toward Hotel Paisano. “That was a good stop.” She explains Sheriff Mitch and his zeal to pull over unsuspecting drivers for not heeding the four-way stoplight. We just left her house. Its decor is bohemian country; prayer flags and strung lights inherited from her landlord adorn the entrance. The fridge is cleverly disguised with pictures, postcards and fruit magnets. A holiday card that exclaims, “HAPPY WINTER I CARE FOR YOU SO HERE IS SOME USELESS TRASH.” A subtle descriptor that dictates a slice of my host’s personality. Rachel is a romantic realist. “I guess it’s just kind of how my mind works. I grew up in the suburbs on the East Coast, and I want to live in rural West Texas. Not that that is entirely representative, but in some ways it is. It makes the world feel safer and also bigger when I can make friends at the fire department and connect with people outside my comfort zone. Learning to inhabit different points of view.”
Her flip phone vibrates as I sit at her dining table. She offers me a La Croix. I’m nervy and start rambling about my mother’s long-form text messages about her aunt who was apparently the first female and Hispanic bank manager in Marfa. Rachel wants to go to the bank and check out the story, but they are closing soon. Imagine Rachel always in this tone. She is a curious cat. It is the way she navigates the experience of others — prowling around for stimuli. She writes book reviews that read like subtly adapted movie treatments. She supplements her income through financial copywriting and hotel critiques. Finds time to volunteer at the local fire department and ride motorcycles. Freelancing isn’t for the faint of heart.
Thick arched entryways guard the hotel’s courtyard — it’s old West Texas reinterpreting Spanish colonial. The wind has had its way with her hair; it’s tangled and separated in pieces falling just above her shoulders. She wears a denim dress with cap sleeves that puff up around her shoulders, a colorful tattoo peeking out on her right arm. She is an inch or so shy of six feet tall and stacked proportionately. Her beauty is supplemental to her conversation. She is a natural at both. I hit record and Rachel immediately worries the fountain noise will overwhelm the conversation. I am unconcerned; she backtracks. “Oh well, it’s fine.”
Careful consideration is the crux of her living. She told me about when she was in grad school and lived at The Bell Foundry, the Baltimore arts building. She and a group of friends created the space as a kind of Pee-wee’s Playhouse for theater and artsy types. A labyrinth of wood pallet stairs, freezing floors and the overwhelming stench of cat pee were the stomping grounds for these well-spent youths. “This place was quite raw; we could turn it into anything. We had a reading series in the basement for a while. It was an interesting time in my life.”
Marfa is now home. It’s a town that celebrates esoteric luxuries and for many occupants the expectations of a rock and hard place. Even so, it’s best known for the artistic energy it projects. This place is kind to Rachel, and the feeling is mutual. However, the incongruity of the town’s experience now and pre-artistic enclave is ambient. I grew up under a similar Texas sky in a small town aware of its privilege and plight. When you are accustomed to the former, the latter seems less obvious. Not for Rachel though. I imagine there are many things that keep her eyes open on those clear nights where every living thing in the desert is haunting for other living things, including her own thoughts. On occasion revisiting that one thought, the inescapable irony of Marfa. She intercedes deliberately, her Texas Monthly reporting gives voice to the experience of West Texas living.
The margaritas are shockingly steadfast in the Texas heat. The bipolar clouds are playing hide-and-seek with the sun. Rachel tells me about her complications with reporting and how she, even now, after being named a “Queen of Nonfiction” among 56 female journalists to read by New York Magazine, hasn’t convinced herself worthy of the description. “I didn’t and still often don’t feel like I know what I’m doing. I didn’t go to journalism school, right? … I went to school for fiction.”
She is permanently in her head. A life of the mind is a tricky condition for writers; it can assure your legacy or you can completely lose yourself in it. Rachel, to be sure, lives in both these realities. Never taking herself too seriously but taking the artfulness of writing serious enough. “I have to, in a way, get myself in that weird defensive, not defensive, that slightly cynical stance. Because I always end up liking people and seeing things from their point of view — this is a real struggle.”
Striking a balance after grad school offered a strange clarity. “As for fiction … I always felt like I was faking it a little bit, writing short stories. Also, I never really wanted to read short stories, which is a dead giveaway. Once I was finished with grad school and I didn't have assignments due, I didn't feel particularly motivated to write fiction. But I was still writing long journal entries, just writing for myself, about my feelings and what I was thinking about.” These pieces explore insecurities, but pre-emo, it’s more similar to ’90s grunge — wickedly vulnerable. The net offered a kind of go-between traditional non-fiction and first-person essay writing. “You could write nonfiction that was literary and self-aware but about a subject beyond just yourself and your own experiences.”
Rachel’s audible thinking complements the conversation. The quickened “huh” and deep-throated “mmm” precede long pauses and antsy beginnings of sounded-out thoughts. She always finds her stride ruminating on, not merely reacting, to the questions. We talk about brothers and firefighting.
Rachel Monroe is keen to tell the sordid lives we live with. “I get a real thrill … I mean it’s not universal as in it-doesn’t-always-happen that way. But being able to make a connection or see somebody’s perspective who I thought I couldn’t feels really good, like a good stretch does.” The goal is rather matter of fact. Seeking that very moment of ordering the world into something tangible, morphing human complexity into something relatable — a story.
We discussed the functionality of reporting long-form pieces. The uncertainty of what is expected and what actually is. “I generally don’t go and report something if I don’t know where it’s going to live, if that makes sense. Even if I don’t have an assignment, because you know your brain is angled in that way, you’re shaping it as you’re living it.” Refueling her intrigue through the curiosities of life.
I tell Rachel we had to pitch our writers. She is amused by this discovery. “That makes me feel funny in a good way.” Her modesty is exacting. A nascent feeler, Rachel is a refreshing chat. The iffy sky is turning on itself, the mix of pink and orange are toning down into something ominous, and the wind is picking up. We move inside. It’s quieter, and she is counseling me on her Marfa Public Radio interviews of Lannon writers. “I feel embarrassed you have listened to those interviews. I’ve gotten so much better.”
We gossip a little. The desert offers tranquility with that isolation from the presupposed lit scene. Anyway, Rachel isn’t lonely when she is alone. She is at her best. Loyla Pierson, her former roommate at the Foundry, explained Rachel’s tendency for isolation and her instinct for a story. “You end up getting a lot of space with Rachel. She is an immediately engaging person. She is very much herself so it is very easy to know her and some ways it’s impossible to know her.” A state of arrival that many people wait their entire lives for. On the one hand, fleeing from the inevitable truth of how solitary life really is, on the other, chasing the chance to explore one’s self-awareness. This is the guile of art and muse to feel and to create a story that is entirely your own.
She invites me to dinner with she and her brother Alex, who just got into town. We meet at Stellina, one of the few restaurants open on a Tuesday night. A long rectangular bar fills the space; it’s like a dinner table with the middle cut out. People surround all sides, unminding shoulders touching each other. We are exchanging introductions and brother and sister are adjusting to one another. A woman from across the room is eyeing us. Not us, Rachel. This woman has all the trappings of a Marfa transplant or a traveling hipster. Her wavy windblown hair falls carelessly around her shoulders, along with a strategically placed scarf and a backpack that hangs off her shoulder. She motions for Rachel. They recognize each other at what seems to be the exact same moment. Rachel wanders over. I’m panting with excitement. Alex seems aloof to it all. Rachel comes back with a story.
The woman is in fact traveling. She met Rachel last year while working at a bookstore in Missoula, Montana. Rachel was doing a reading from a story she wrote about smokejumpers. The two hit it off. The woman, also named Rachel, had mentioned she was going on a long road trip with her boyfriend. Naturally, Rachel invited her to Marfa. “Seven months later, there they were,” Rachel added.
Life is random, and Rachel is a friend to strangers.
We end up meeting the couple at the Lost Horse Saloon. The familiar red Lone Star beer bottle caps make up the walkway. It’s typical of a saloon minus the wood floors. These floors are less resolute, uneven and seem on the verge of giving way in certain areas. The bar stools are the definition of kitsch — the effigies of a gal’s legs and ass offer an optical illusion. It works well as I adjust my eyes, spotting Rachel and her friend at the bar.
She orders a ranch water rich with tequila, topo chico and lime. I copy her and start feeling like the little sister tagging along. Luckily, her actual little sibling is here — Alex. He is tall like his sister and handsome in a teen soap opera kind of way, in that he could play a teen in a soap opera despite being almost 30. The swagger of the boy next door, he is polite and talkative. He explains why, like his parents, he became a doctor. Rachel rarely gets mentioned. I don’t know if that’s me or him. He is six years her junior and the two of them seem like loving strangers as grown siblings often do.
After about an hour and a few more ranch waters, we are all sitting on the patio chatting about the state of America. Rachel roasts Alex a bit over his music taste. They are warming up, and I’m front row. The hazy sky and strung lights overhead are the only thing between us and the brilliant stars. I keep looking up, just one more night of that starry blanket will suffice, but the dirty desert is in cahoots with the wind again. As the conversation starts becoming streams of consciousness, I miss our talk. Rachel leans forward hanging onto the words of others, observing the chemistry. A rare and sly smile stretches across her face. Another story is building.