One of the (few) food places I’d read about in the Big Bend region was Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit Bakery in Marathon Texas, known for its fried pies.
Marathon is 56 miles from Marfa – a long way to drive for pie – so when I saw that my return trip from Big Bend National Park would take me through Marathon, I was psyched to try the pie.
But unfortunately store hours in Marathon are much like those in Marfa, which is to say infrquent and erratic. Not easy for a New Yorker to remember; I am used to being able to get pretty much anything I want, 7 days a week, often 24 hours a day. But with a month to spend here, I figured I’d have plenty of time to try the pie.
I was also foiled in my second attempt to get to Shirley’s, as you may have already read.
I was determined not to strike out on my third pie try. Set my alarm (the only time I’d done that in Marfa), didn’t have any breakfast to make room for biscuits as well as pie, and got in the car to set out on the 112 mile round trip drive.
As I drove through the now-familiar but still-striking mountains and desert, I wondered what, exactly, I was doing.
What was the point of this trip – both this specific drive for pie, and the whole month in Marfa? I wasn’t doing any “Soul Searching” or “Deep Thinking”. I wasn’t working on my business. I was being my typical self – filling my days with activities, crossing things off my list. Yes, I was experiencing having time and space. But, really, so what?
Then, about 15 miles outside of Marfa, I passed Allie on the highway in his rickshaw.
I’d met Allie my first week in Marfa, and he seemed like exactly the kind of person I’d expected to find drawn to the place. He’s your typical formerly-homeless Vietnam Vet who’s pursuing his dream to break the Guiness World Record for a long-distance rickshaw journey, travelling from California to Miami with his dog Roxie. Of course he is. He’s even got a website – www.rickshawroadtrip.com
I’d see him pretty much whereever I went in Marfa – at the shakuhachi zen flute concert, on the main drag, at The Pizza Foundation, at the Halloween Pet Costume Contest and Parade … You name it, Allie was there. He became one of the characters that I’d run into almost everyday, like the Dancing Cowboy or the book store guy or the tour guide woman.
So I thought of Allie as just another Marfan, a fixture in town. Until I saw him out there on the highway, alone, miles from anywhere, slowly pulling his rickshaw. It’s hard to explain, but it touched me deeply. It was one thing for me to drive in that expansive landscape at 70 miles an hour surrounded by a ton of steel. But the enormity of Allie’s journey – and of his humanity – got to me. And if I hadn’t been on my quest for pie, I would never have seen him, a lone man and his dog, in the middle of what it is hard not to call God’s Country.
And now, back to the pies!
A while later, I pulled up to Shirley’s. Was there early enough to chat with Don and some of the boys. (There is no longer a Shirley – there is Don.) And to get a half-order of sausage and biscuits. (“A half will be enough for you.”) And to finally try the pies. Now I’m not even a particularly huge pie fan, but I got one of each: apple, apricot, peach and blueberry. Actually, I got two blueberries. More on that second blueberry in a minute.
The pies are really delicious. Sort of like if a McDonald’s apple pie died and went to heaven. Light and flaky, they don’t taste fried at all. The filling is fruity but not too sweet and is a good mix of chunky and gooey, and it combines with the inside of the pastry to create that third element, where the pastry and filling merge. Pie perfection. If you are anywhere near Marathon, I’d say it’s worth the drive.
I spent as much time as I could in Marathon, which is about an hour, even with a 10 mile drive to the public park to see a lovely pond in the desert. Maybe it’s because I have lived on the island of Manhattan for 25 years, or maybe it’s because when you see water in the desert you’re aware of how rare and precious it is, but whenever I come across water out here – from the Rio Grande to a tiny creek, it seems like an oasis.
My pie quest fulfilled, I spent the rest of the day in Alpine, the biggest, most touristy city in the region, with motels, McDonalds and a university which is home to the Museum of the Big Bend, which is worth checking out if you’re in the area. The rest of Alpine, not so much, in my opinion.
It was about 8 hours later when I pulled into a roadside picnic area. There wasn’t a question in my mind who I would find there. I parked next to the rickshaw and gave Allie a hug. He said, “I see you everywhere!” I told him how I’d seen him on my drive out and how it affected me. And I gave him a pie. “How did you know I would be here? And how did you know that blueberry is my favorite?” he asked. I just knew. I gave him a donation for his trip and he said, “I am truly blessed.” And I have to admit, I felt the same way.