Q: Where does the Border Patrol’s “drug blimp” go at night?
A: It sleeps in a field outside of Marfa, Texas.
The Marfa aerostat, aloft in daylight
The so-called “drug blimp” is actually a tethered aerostat — a white helium balloon as big or larger than the portly tire-company-maintained dirigibles that flock to parades and sporting events — operated by the U.S. Air Force, which makes the data it collects available to NORAD and the U.S. Border Patrol. It is by far the most tangible of the lazy clouds floating through the skies of the southern region of Far West Texas, its onboard radar system keeping an eye out for drug smugglers flying or driving loads of cocaine and or marijuana over from the deserts of Northern Mexico. It’s unmanned and controlled from the ground, attached via a tether cable to some kind of rail system. Similar aerostat sites can be found in the Bahamas, Arizona, and broadcasting decadent episodes of “Nanny 911” or whatever via TV Marti into Communist Cuba from Cudjoe Key, Florida. Or at least that’s what the Air Force has to say about it.
The Marfa aerostat, grounded at 2:45am
I came across it moored, at about 3am, in a blazing circle of orange halide security lamps on my way from Los Angeles to visit friends in Marfa and Terlingua. I stopped and started snapping away with my camera, but kept getting that “willies” feeling that goes along with standing on a windy, deserted Texas road in the middle of the night, taking pictures of a government surveillance aircraft that chases narcotraficantes around.
Pinto Canyon Road, West Texas, by moonlight
The Marfa aerostat is part of Far West Texas’ complex system of border monitoring technology that includes triggers on rural routes that insure government agents will be checking up on late night back road cruisers. Or so I was warned by two local joint-passing bros when I inquired as to where my friend Sasha and I might catch a glimpse of the Marfa Lights, or at least document the West Texas hills in the light of the full moon. They pointed us down Pinto Canyon Road, but told us to expect company. No Border Patrol 4x4s were waiting for us though (nor were the mysterious Marfa Lights); there were only a few wary horses on hand to monitor our activity.
The Marfa aerostat, sundown
It’s no secret that the aerostat is based off Highway 90 between Marfa and Van Horn, so it was easy enough to catch again on my way back to Los Angeles a week later, right around sundown, when I was a bit less creeped out.
The point being, of course, is that West Texas is a weird and wonderful place where psychedelic cowboy bands play atop pirate ships that have run aground on sandy desert shoals; Harvard-educated lawyers build lovely off-the-grid compounds based on ancient Egyptian architectural designs and the Feds watch it all from dread zeppelins floating 10,000 feet up above. Arthur columnist Dave Reeves and I spent more time there than we were expecting, and will be filing further dispatches in the weeks to come. Stand by …