Election 2020 Politics

Escaping coronavirus anxiety in the Texas desert

About four years ago, an unidentified artist transformed an old cinder block railroad building into a tiny fake Target store, complete with the retail chain’s familiar red bull’s eye logo. Some interpreted it as the equalizing cousin to Prada Marfa, an art installation located in an equally remote roadside spot about an hour down the road.

But unlike Prada Marfa, a faux retail store that showcases a display of Prada purses and shoes behind a reinforced glass storefront, Target Marathon has no stock — just a red shopping cart parked out front, a prop for those who venture deep into the Chihuahuan Desert to find it.

Prada Marfa, a roadside art installation off Highway 90 near Valentine, Tex.
Prada Marfa, a roadside art installation off Highway 90 near Valentine, Tex. (Holly Bailey//The Washington Post)

In recent days, the tiny Target has taken on a new kind of visitor — people who have come to what some around here describe as the end of the earth to practice a kind of extreme social distancing to avoid catching the novel coronavirus and find some respite from the unsettling headlines, even if it is only between pockets of working cellular coverage.

On a recent afternoon, Sarah McGraw, a 41-year-old photographer from Greenville, S.C., pulled up in a large white van that she had purchased about a year ago to travel across the country, hiking and backpacking in national parks. But the purchase has taken on a new usefulness in recent weeks.

McGraw, who specializes in pet portraiture for personal and commercial clients, had been in Phoenix for an assignment when the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down much of the country. She retreated into her van and began a slow journey back east, stopping off to visit and hike in mostly deserted national parks where the visitor centers were closed but the trails were open.

She’d gone to the Grand Canyon and to White Sands National Park in New Mexico and was slowly driving her way around this empty part of Texas. “It’s kind of nice because I get to stay isolated. I don’t have to get a hotel. I make every meal in there,” McGraw said. “I’ve been more isolated than most people, going to these national parks.”

But the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has started to prompt new limits on access to the parks. On Sunday, Big Bend National Park closed its campgrounds, sending away visitors who had descended on the area to escape. Though the trails remained open, park officials for days had been signaling to the public to stay away.

In recent days, officials in three Texas counties that include the park have ordered all hotels and lodging, including Airbnbs and campgrounds, to close for at least a week. While there have been no local cases of covid-19, they cited fears that an outbreak could overwhelm their rural medical system. Big Bend Regional Medical Center, in nearby Alpine, has just 25 beds, and officials there say they already struggle to meet demand for everyday medical issues.

A train crosses the Chihuahuan Desert near Alpine, Tex. The region near Big Bend National Park is one of the most desolate areas of Texas.
A train crosses the Chihuahuan Desert near Alpine, Tex. The region near Big Bend National Park is one of the most desolate areas of Texas. (Holly /Bailey/The Washington Post)

Among those who left the park were Tim Kosaka, 23, and Jason Burke, 27, who had driven from the Dallas-Fort Worth area on a last-minute trip after Kosaka’s family canceled their planned vacation to San Francisco amid the coronavirus pandemic.

For four days, they had camped and hiked, soaking in the hot springs. “It was a good escape from everything that’s happening in the country,” said Kosaka, who runs marketing and public relations for a small religious college near Dallas.

With no cell service, his phone had stopped flashing breaking news alerts about covid-19, and he had been unable to read the news or check social media. “I actually forgot about it for three or four days, which was a good mental health break,” Kosaka said.

But soon he and Burke, a business analyst, would be back on the road toward Dallas, where city and county officials across the metroplex were ordering residents to shelter-in-place as the number of coronavirus cases there had started to spike. Like tens of millions of Americans across the country, they would soon be stuck indoors, working at home, for an unknown period of time.

At least they had those few days in Big Bend, Burke said, “when we could just hike and forget about all of this.”

Highway 90 near Alpine.
Highway 90 near Alpine. (Holly Bailey//The Washington Post)

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