On Magic, Tenacity, and a Very Long Paper Route

As of this issue, I am retired from the Gazette. For the past thirteen and a half years, this job has been inextricably linked to my entire experience of living in West Texas. Because my husband John Waters (That’s right: the publisher) and I own the Gazette together, and because we acquired it within a month of my arrival in West Texas, the Gazette has largely been my lens, my key, my magic portal—all these metaphors—to the Big Bend.

Having the Gazette has also been a bit like, I imagine, having a child. As in: we had no idea, really, what owning our own small newspaper business in far out West Texas would entail. I think as far as we got mentally was Well, sure, why not? It beats a lot of other jobs. It will be interesting. We could stay a while. It could be fun….

For the first few years, the Gazette was, like a child, the dominant (sometimes cuddly, sometimes belligerent, always dependent) force in our lives. The Gazette was never far from our consciousness, nor, literally, from us physically. Living and working out of a very small rock house in Terlingua, there was always something that could be done (right now!), and there was the glow and hum of the computers just a few feet away from even our sleeping, sweaty bodies, in our screened-in porch of a bedroom in the heart of the desert.

When Waters first pitched to me in August 2003 the idea of buying this monthly newspaper that was for sale—via email, note, when he was already living here and working in the backcountry of Big Bend National Park, and I was still teaching writing in Boise, Idaho—I was intrigued, but reluctant. I was already planning to move to Terlingua to reunite with Waters, and to take a break from teaching—but a newspaper? Neither of us has formal training in journalism, nor did we have any idea of how to use a Macintosh or do one wit of graphic design.

If you ask Waters for this story, by the way, you will get a different version of his initial pitch to me. The part on which we agree, however, is also the hook: his email cleverly concluded with “Come dance through the universe with me.” Now, what girlfriend can say no to that? (A wiser, more seasoned one, surely. But not me, not then. Well played, Waters.)

I should also note that Waters was entirely accurate in his portrayal of Terlingua, and the whole of the Big Bend of West Texas.

I had lived a lot of places, including several fairly remote ones, working on and off for years in national parks and forests, but had never been to this part of Texas. “Brace yourself, Darlin’,” Waters emailed just before I headed south from Idaho with my two cats in my Subaru wagon: “You’re moving to the Outback.”

I arrived one hot Sunday morning in mid-August at my new driveway in Terlingua (“Drive along FM 170, past the turnoff for the Ghost Town,” read Waters’ email. “Go down a really big hill, and after you pass the second flood gauge, turn right onto the next dirt road.” Seriously? Yep, seriously: perfect directions.). I distinctly recall as I drove up the narrow, steep, bumpy dirt road to arrive, with my cats, squinting in the heat and dust at the tiny rock house, thinking, laughing, The Outback, alright. He wasn’t kidding.

That first place in Terlingua was comprised of three small rooms—and an outhouse, an outdoor shower, the running water to the kitchen sink coming from rainwater catchment…and DSL Internet access. No neighbors in any direction for about a half mile, an arroyo on each side of the hill on which our little rock house was perched. Stunning views in all directions, of desert and mountains galore, including some in the national park and some in Mexico.

In September 2003, we bought The Marathon Gazette from its creator and sole staffer, renowned journalist Barbara Novovitch, changed its name and expanded its focus. Meantime, both Waters and I worked full-time as seasonal employees in the national park, spending days at a time in the park’s backcountry, hiking and collecting data (him on rare plants, me on campsites). On evenings and weekends we tried to figure out what stories to write, whom to interview. What was newsworthy here? And I learned, in fits and starts, how to operate a Macintosh computer (one of the cute ones that looked like a blue plastic fish tank), and how to build pages in Adobe Pagemaker and swizzle images correctly in Photoshop.

For the first issue, I stayed up for most of an entire weekend, hunched in a cheap plastic lawn chair in front of the computer perched on a table made from a hay spool turned sideways, in the one little room in our place that was not the screened-in porch bedroom nor the kitchen. Fans blew, insects bounced off the glow screen the whole time.

That Monday morning, we both drove 3+ hours to Pecos, to bring our newly-created pages on a zip drive to get the issue printed, and then deliver it all over West Texas. (Which we, or rather mostly Waters, still does, though now and for many years, thankfully, we just email PDFs of pages to the guys at our printing press in Monahans. Plus, I now sit at a real desk, on an exercise ball.) Every month I think of and crack up at that Pee Wee Herman line, “I think I’ll start a paper route RIGHT NOW!”

Logistics aside, there was the nagging question: Who were we to attempt to write about West Texas? We just got here, and (gasp!) They’re not even native Texans. Double curse. It was amazingly ballsy of us. Or terribly naïve. Maybe both.

The saving grace, the only way we managed to pull this off, and continue pulling this off for so long? (Besides tenacity and really wanting to create our own thing and finding so many really interesting stories here, that is.) The incredibly magnanimous people who live here. Right: YOU. Initially we got some raised eyebrows and a few metaphorical brick walls, but mostly, people were cooperative, helpful, kind, generous—cautiously optimistic, I am guessing, that we might be respectful, curious, and thorough enough to do justice to their stories, to this grand scale of a place. That we are still in business, and still able to find and share news and other stories, is great testament to the magic of this community.

Oh, and did I mention the glaring misspelling of the word “tentative” in the top headline in our first issue?

Nearly every month now since October 2003, we have had the great honor and tremendous joy and burden of creating something—the monthly print edition of the Gazette—out of nothing. And nearly every month, no matter how paltry our list of stories may be initially, somehow we have managed to pull it off. Some issues are clearly more inspired and inspiring than others. There are slow news months. There are illnesses and personal crises that have interfered with or delayed or tamped down our energies for the Gazette. But there are also astonishingly good writers, photographers, artists who keep sharing their talents with us, and public and private figures who open their doors to us so we may delve and research and reveal things.

As editor and graphic designer (and bookkeeper and website manager and sometimes contributing writer and photographer), I am very pleased to have helped pull the rabbit out of the hat every month. It’s been a great gig. Not only does my work on the Gazette beat the hell out of most of my other jobs (literally over 100), it most certainly is a huge uptick over those work moments of, for example, at 1 am in a pub in Portland, Oregon, reaching my arm down through two feet of grey, greasy water in the pub’s kitchen sink to pull the beans and shredded lettuce and hamburger gristle out of the drain so the water can once again drain—and then scrubbing the grill for an hour, until 2 am. Plus, I have met so many truly fascinating people all over this region, been privy to so many juicy stories, been able to spread the word about news and causes dear to us, publish previously unknown writers and photographers, and get access to things never dreamed of, including floating in the same pool at Cibolo Creek that I hear Mick Jagger prefers.

And yet my exit from the Gazette is long overdue. For one, though I am a writer at heart, as editor and graphic designer and bookkeeper for the Gazette, for many years I have gotten so bogged down in the niggling details of pulling together each issue that I rarely write anymore, for the Gazette or otherwise. Ditto for developing some of my other interests, even some that used to be a part of my regular contributions to the Gazette.

I think we call this burnout.

To paraphrase poet and environmentalist Gary Synder, we have to be careful to not let ourselves be “tyrannized by our lesser talents.”

My dad died last May, and I will turn 50 this summer, bringing new emphasis to the question: Why not now?

It’s time for me to move on to other things, to get back to writing, more massage therapy, and developing new creative projects.

Furthermore, Waters and I have been working on the Gazette even longer than we have been married. I’ll spare you the gory details, but those of you in long-term romantic relationships can probably fill in the blanks: working with your partner for this long has some funny effects on the relationship. It’s been a good exercise in some ways—a spiritual practice, if you will— for us two very independent persons to learn to work together. For the most part, we’ve gotten that down. And yet the very same things we admire in each other in some circumstances (Waters: I LOVE how you aren’t bothered by the piles of paper surrounding you as you write! I wish I could be that focused and unflappable.) are the very same things that try (wo)men’s souls, as they say (Waters: Are you ever going to clean up these piles of papers?! Atrocious! I can’t even walk in here!).

Actually, that’s a fairly mild example of some of our struggles.

You get the idea: it’s time to open the pressure release valve on our marriage, to not have nearly every realm of our lives overlap. We’re looking forward to being romantic partners again, not business partners.

Plus, Waters deserves fellow writers and editors and other staffers as enthused as he is about producing the Gazette (in print and online).

Finally, you, dear readers deserve the same. Thank you for staying the course.

I am delighted and relieved and a tiny bit wistful about jumping off, but thrilled to have been part of such a meaningful journey. I may contribute some writing or photos from time to time, which will be a great pleasure. But mostly, I am very eager to see how and where it goes next.

Thank you, as always, for reading.

Gazette Publisher John Waters and Editor Marlys Hersey on a recent hike in New Mexico, where they went to escape work and celebrate twelve years of marriage. Photo: Marlys Hersey, with camera angled to hopefully be most chin-flattering.

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