Hit The Road

Tarantulas, Topo, and the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love

A reluctant, first-time camper takes on a Marfa music fest.

By Dana DuTerroil August 3, 2018

Nighttime at the Trans-Pecos Festival

We had two cans of Blue Bottle cold brew, 15 ounces of Chex Mix, two cartons of granola bars, one pound of pub-seasoned snack blend with not near enough of those crunchy sesame sticks, a rapidly depleting batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies, a bag of banana toffee crunch, and two gallons of water to wash down this diabetic coma-inducing, artery-clogging, off-the-charts sodium mountain of snacks as we headed on the 599-mile drive to Marfa.

I was being pushed to the limits of my very low tolerance for camping, on the grounds of El Cosmico’s 2017 Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love.

While camping without the assistance of professionals was unknown to me—no Brownie vest or Girl Scout sash ever hung in my closet—the town of Marfa was familiar. My husband and I had visited in 2009, making the 8-hour drive from Houston for scenic views of rolling tumbleweeds, towering yuccas, and Donald Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum displayed in a space once occupied by German prisoners of war during World War II.

Prada Marfa

You might know Marfa as the dusty backdrop for Hollywood’s oil-fueled films, Giant and There Will Be Blood. It’s a landscape of wide open spaces dotted by United States Border Control interior checkpoints; an uneasy mix of law and disorder. It’s a place where Prada Marfa tricks passersby into believing the art installation is an actual boutique, while a giant, white DEA radar blimp tethered in the desert stands in for a mirage straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson roadside hallucination. It's a county seat of approximately 1,747 residents; a Peyton Place on acid.

Aside from Marfa’s high approval rating as a vacation destination, my camp-crusading husband held another bargaining chip in securing my consent to camp: our favorite band, Wilco, was headlining the 2017 Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love. Wilco’s sound, an alt-everything mash-up from Americana to art rock, had doubled as a siren song for travel inspiration throughout our relationship. He knew a Wilco concert, even one paired with high desert camping, was a sure thing. 

The lineup

Accordingly, it seemed like a happy accident that I was a first-time camper in the age of canned wine. Although outside alcohol was prohibited, there was plenty for sale on the campground, including a wine lodge for pours by the glass. And unlike other music festivals in less-enlightened locales, there were no rules against openly carrying alcohol while listening to bands or hanging in the hammock grove. I was also camping on a festival site offering free bottles of Topo Chico, and for purchase: kombucha on tap, massages and haircuts by appointment, commemorative tintype portraits, Ferris Wheel rides, and workshops on hair-braiding techniques and drawing with fire.

The Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love, now in its 13th year, maintains an outsider status in the music festival universe thanks to its remote location, roughly 1,000 festival-goers, and a solitary stage for music performances. There’s no conflict over which band to see because you get to hear them all. Each night features about five bands, kicking off at 6 p.m. and ending around midnight. During the day, you’re free to roam around Marfa or stay put on the festival grounds. Entry to the three-day fest will set you back $250-$325 if you want to add on-site DIY camping. A limited number of trailers, yurts, and furnished tents are available for an additional fee.

After my husband and I set up the tent in 30 minutes time, without the assistance of couples counseling, I gladly shelled out $7 in the gift shop for an embroidered merit badge in drinking, symbolized by a glass of red wine. However, my consumption of a six-pack of canned wine during Wilco’s 27-song set list had later consequences. Time stands still when you wake up in a tent and need to pee at 4 a.m. At least one hour is spent debating the seriousness of the urge and hating the glampers who rented tricked out RVs with indoor plumbing and names like Golden Blingham and Kozy Coach, all of them booked far in advance, and in clear view of our humble, nylon abode. At least 30 minutes is then spent strategizing your departure from the tent which includes extricating yourself from the sleeping bag, donning a head lamp, packing Kleenex and Purell, finding your shoes which are forbidden in the tent so as to not track in dirt, and then following the quickest route to the generous stretch of Porta Potties—while avoiding tarantulas who happen to be enjoying the height of mating season in late September.

Emboldened by my successful trip to the outhouse, I next took on the challenge of showering. My original plan had been to “spot clean,” but I still packed shower essentials, just in case. As it turned out, the festival’s showering situation wasn’t that bad. There were two choices: showers en plein air with ivy-clad privacy walls and a waiting list, or a mobile unit of stalls with no line whatsoever. I picked the path of least resistance and headed to the stalls. In under four minutes, I emerged victorious—my long hair turbaned in a beach towel and no apparent signs of flesh-eating bacteria underfoot.

At most music festivals, there’s an unwritten dress code typified by troops of newly middle-aged men outfitted for a week in the Outback with hydration packs strapped to their backs, moisture-wicking cargo shorts, and hats with side panels and detachable neck capes to block out any possible sun exposure. And these guys aren’t even camping. Flocks of young girls go unapologetically impractical, corseted in high-waisted denim shorts, floppy hats depriving them of any peripheral vision, and footwear fraught with danger in the form of chunky heels leaving behind divots in the grass.

Here, on the grounds of El Cosmico, the only nod to camping was the presence of tents in the background, accessorized by prairie-inspired looks, worn by either sex, and accented by pearl snaps, chambray, and vintage bandanas knotted at the neck. The stitched letters on the back of a man’s floor-length robe summed up the vibe: Fuckin’ Zen.

Throughout the weekend, there were no obvious VIP distinctions. The only holder of a backstage pass appeared to be a Labrador mix who mingled with band members during their sets. The dogs accompanying their owners at El Cosmico fell into two categories—blue-collar types like the Australian shepherds looking for a pack to herd, and the jet set clique of French bulldogs and pugs whose owners carried them in their arms or strapped to their chests in a canine version of the Baby Björn.

All the dogs lived in fear of the area’s natural predator, the dreaded goat head burr, a thorny wagon-wheel whose spiky exterior lodges in their paws causing outbreaks of limping and whimpering. The same side effects afflict barefooted humans when a particularly large burr punctures the tent floor lacking a ground cloth.

We managed to avoid such an unwelcome encounter thanks to our protective tent footprint.

Before the monsoon.

Our REI-sourced, three-season tent (arctic winter not included) was also armed with a rain fly, a water-resistant security blanket covering our sheltered dome whose durability was tested in the early morning hours when the pitter-patter of raindrops worked its way to a crescendo. By then, we’d seen Wilco plus seven other bands over two nights of perfect acoustics. But now the sound of rain had worked my husband into a frenzied inspection of our tent’s interior for signs of a leak, because, as he had repeatedly warned me, there was absolutely nothing worse than rain invading your tent. A nightmare scenario, described by my Alpine Club credentialed spouse as one where "everything gets soggy—your sleeping bag, your clothes, your pillow, there's nowhere to dry anything, there’s nowhere to go so basically camping is over.”

So, we departed a day early, missing the annual sandlot baseball game and a surprise appearance from St. Vincent during Fiona Apple’s set, but also missing an evening monsoon. 

Camping is a series of packing and unpacking, assembling and disassembling, setting up and breaking down. Separating essentials from non-essentials in a succession of choices to determine what's important to you and what you can live without. Music under the West Texas skies paired with a can of rosé made a reluctant camper out of me, even if it was just two nights and our car was parked in a nearby lot for a clean getaway.

And as all good campers do, we left no trace except for a small fortune spent on a souvenir trove of koozies, T-shirts, a commemorative calendar, bumper stickers, rolling papers inscribed with an inspirational quote (for a friend), and my aforementioned merit badge—all fully branding us as attendees of the 2017 Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love.

The Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love 2018 is September 20-23 with a lineup including Robert Ellis, Los Lobos, Future Islands, Jenny Lewis, Angel Olsen and more. Tickets (including camping) are available on its official website.

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