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Close Encounters of the Phoot Kind
At long last, the Story of Phoot Camp 2011. Read all about last year’s Pictory creative retreat for photographers — and then apply in the next few hours to join us in June 2012.
Published May 1, 2012
Compiled/written by Laura Brunow Miner
“We were just visiting and talking, and all of the sudden we saw lights over on the Chinati Mountains. It couldn’t be any kind of car lights. And we first thought probably it was a campfire of Indians or Mexicans, or ranchers. But it didn’t act like a campfire at all.” 1
Marfa. The lights. It kept coming up. Friends from Dallas said they’d been to this remote artist community several times — and had always seen “the lights.”
“What do you mean ‘the lights’?”
“The Marfa Lights. Ghost lights. There’s something strange out there.”
I managed to put it out of my mind. And yet there were patterns forming. Collections. I found myself stockpiling cameras, lenses, and other recording devices. Couldn’t stop thinking about light. The lights. It was becoming an obsession.
There were others like me. We found each other at clearance sales for old photo labs, and at flea markets, each with one hand on the same old Mamiya. We pooled our resources and started stockpiling: first aid kits, radiation suits, provisions, Tecate, boots, hats, sunscreen, and generators.
It made no sense. Marfa was 2200 miles away. We had day jobs. Families. Mortgages. Full, complicated lives. But nothing could dissuade us.
By June 2011 we were on the road.
We had driven out of Southern California, through most of Arizona, and were nearly to New Mexico when we found out: Another group matching our profile had bunked down in Slab City after we came through. They came from LA and were carrying cameras, shooting cans with BB guns, jumping into hot springs, and most notably — talking about lights. They called themselves “LA-RV” and we felt sure we’d see more of them.
Another group had arrived in Marfa ahead of us. They’d just driven in from Houston, and they were — of course — carrying cameras, and talking about lights.
We arrived to the desolate field just outside Marfa limits that we would call home, to find out that there were 35 of us total, all driven by the same madness.
We shook hands and looked each other over, immediately sensing how much we had in common. Any fear or competition faded into the comfort of knowing we understood each other.
Meet Lauren. Behind that sweet smile, she’s smart, savvy, and wildly talented.
Meet Rob. Rob alternates between acting very thoughtful, in the sense of thinking deeply and often, and very silly. Rob’s description of meeting the rest of the crew: like meeting dozens of Waldos (a la Where’s Waldo) after having always thought you were the only one.
And this is me. As our de facto leader, I gave us a name. We were Phoot Camp, and we were there to find the light together. The lights.
We spent the next couple of days getting to know each other and West Texas. We would come back later to our search for the lights, but we had a few things to take care of first.
We went high up on mountains, in 4x4s and on horseback.
Swam in the world’s largest spring-fed pool.
Learned the right way to tip a hat to a lady, from some local ranchers and their wives.
Soaked up the beauty of this airy town, learning the rhythm of the train whistle and the hum of the locals.
Eventually, feeling safe in the comfort of our provisions, each other, and the kindness of the local community, we were ready for things to get extra adventurous. And extraterrestrial.
The daylight faded into our last night in Marfa as we began to prepare. Cameras, ready. Radiations suits, on. Expectations, high.
We stared off in the distance. Willed there to be something unexplained in the dark distance, something that would justify the thousands of miles we’d traveled and the things we’d left behind. Hoped. Prayed.
“Is that something?”
“No, that’s just a street light.”
“Nope, just a car driving by.”
“Wait wait wait, THERE IT IS, LOO—”
“Oh my god, not funny, put the flashlight away.”
We were clearly going to have to wait this one out.
Once we began to relax a little, things finally started happening.
We put some music on, cracked open a few Tecates, and let loose under the bright Milky Way.
And that’s when we realized. The hope for an unusual encounter might have brought us here, but it wasn’t what we were meant to find on those hot, dry days and warm, perfect evenings.
The light, the lights, were just an excuse for us to find each other.
Thank you for reading The Story of Phoot Camp 2011. See also:
I still believe in the mysterious lights outside Marfa, even though we didn’t see a thing but the moon and the stars (and a lot of flash bulbs) on our visit. The lights have been the topic of too much speculation to be nothing. (In fact, one theory put forth by a retired aerospace engineer is that they come from flying, glowing descendants of the pterodactyl called ropens — no joke.) I don’t think it’s my mystery to solve, but I do hope to be back visiting Marfa soon to stare again into the dry, lovely dark.
My first priority, though, is the magic of bringing special people together through creative adventures. It’s our story, but it doesn’t have to be just that. We’re doing it all again this year, near Woodstock, New York, where it just might become your story, too. I extended the deadline one day, so you’ve got until midnight PST on May 1, 2012, to get your application in. (Note: Phoot Camp is free for people who get in, though there is a $20 application fee.)
Brad Smith and Virb.com
A huge thank you to Brad Smith and our continued sponsor, Virb.com. We love working with Virb because they make a great product that we all use. If you haven’t taken a crack at their website-building tools, do yourself a favor and check them out.
Huge thanks to our in-house overachiever Tyler Sharp. Disappointed that he hadn’t been able to talk a friend into loaning us horses for the weekend, Tyler instead arranged for us to have access to rounding up cattle on horseback with actual Texan cowboys, visiting the amazing Cibolo Ranch, and so much more.
Big thanks to brand new RV park, the Tumble In, for letting us rent out the whole lot and be our loud goofy selves just outside Marfa city limits.
The Town of Marfa
I left my heart in Marfa, and it’s not just because the town and surrounding mountains are so beautiful, or because there’s a world-class creative community in this town of 5000. It’s because the community of Marfa fully embraced us. I’ll never forget having my first radio interview ever at Marfa Public Radio, meeting so many interesting people while we were taking portraits at the farmer’s market, eating from the Food Shark truck and Grilled Cheese Emporium, or getting to take our group photo at Buck and Camp’s amazing church. Thank you Buck, Camp, Adam, Krista, Tom, Tex, Kelly, and anyone else I’ve forgotten.
The American Southwest
What a truly incredible part of the country to explore. I couldn’t do justice to the whole of our road trip adventure here, but please spend some time in the Phoot Camp flickr group or the Tumblr archives to see more of our adventures across national parks, thunderstorms, small towns, and the rest of the mystical southwest.
All of my Phooters
I like to say that I host Phoot Camp more than I lead it, and this ridiculously awesome group of people makes it all work. Every year I’m dumbfounded by what you guys bring and contribute. Thank you for having made this crazy idea work on a camp ground in 2009, and for making me so damned positive it will work again this June in New York.