Marfa was nothing short than a complete surprise. When I was last out in this country, Marfa was still unknown as the art community it had already become. To us, it was a small county seat out in the high desert, just one of those places to pass through to get down to the glories of Big Bend National Park. In fact, in the half dozen times I went to Big Bend in my youth, we never even went through there.
We spent three weeks in Marfa, a town even today of only 1,800 people, and left not feeling like we even scratched the surface of this unusual place. And while I’m sure that there are those that will say that we’ve come too late to see the “true Marfa,” I’m glad we came here and saw what we could.
While I loved our stay in Austin, heading out west was the perfect antidote for the traffic and noise of the city. We made good miles the first day stopping off in Del Rio for the night. We finally initiated ourselves into the Walmart boondocking experience. While maybe not the most glamorous of initiation rituals, it felt like an important milestone on our path to being true nomads of the American highway.
The next day, the land really started opened up as we climbed into the high desert. Open horizons always bring a smile to my lips and a lightness to my heart. I’m not a complete anti-social curmudgeon (or I don’t think so at least), but sparsely populated landscapes are the places of my dreams. I think it’s because it makes contact with people a more special, precious encounter. As an example, you really know you are in West Texas when you start noticing that drivers start giving that casual, two fingers off the steering wheel salute as you pass by. A small acknowledgment of the rarity of the encounter.
After a long but beautiful day of driving down US-90, we passed through the big city that is Alpine, Texas (population 6,054). We crossed through the pass and dropped down to the wide plateau upon which Marfa sits.
A few geographic facts about Marfa to help you get your bearings. Marfa is the county seat of Presidio County, which covers the East side of the small southern protrusion of Texas that is the Big Bend. While smaller than it’s expansive neighbor to the East, Brewster County, Presido County covers an expansive 3,856 square miles while only having a total population of 6,800 people. That’s two people for square mile in a land area larger than the state of Delaware. If you wish to catch a commercial flight to Marfa, your best bet is to fly into either El Paso or Midland, both about 200 miles away. All of this is to say that you are a long, long way from just about everything.
Marfa sits in high desert at 4,600 feet on the North side of Presidio County. For most of its history, the town’s fortunes were made by its proximity to the railroad that passes through town to all points east and west and was a gathering spot for the massive cattle ranches that surround the area. During WWII, a large Army airfield was erected in town provided training facilities to thousands of young pilots. However, after the war and the closing of the base, the fortunes of the town seemed to be on the wain. Except for being the set for the movie Giant in 1956 and being the home of the illusive Marfa Lights, Marfa seemed like it was on the way back to obscurity.
In 1971, the minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa and began acquiring land including a great many of the old Army base hangers and barracks in which he began installing his unique sculptures. Along the way, he started inviting artists to join him to build their own installations at the site. Thus began the rapid conversion of Marfa from cattle railroad town to the artist Mecca that it is today. Today, Marfa hosts about 20 galleries and museums and a dozen or so restaurants in a town size that normally would struggle to support a single eatery.
We settled into town at the super minimalist but way cool Tumble-In RV Park on the east side of town. With it’s iconic neon sign and wide open skies, it was a fantastic home base in which to wind down after a busy day of exploring.
If you are coming to Marfa with a limited amount of time, one thing to note is that you need to make sure to come on or after Thursday. While Marfa has definitely grown into a tourism and art community, it retains the quirk that most businesses generally don’t open their doors to the public on Thursday and close up on Sunday for the rest of the week. For us, this quirk was perfect, allowing us to explore the streets of the town at our leisure after work. However, for the non-nomad, you might find this strange work week frustrating if you have somewhere else to go.
Once Thursday rolls around though, there is so much to do. You can spend several hours just roaming up the main and side streets wandering in and out of galleries. There are a few little boutiques with curios, art, clothing, jewelry and leather craft. We, by nature of our housing arrangements, have to skip most of the joys of shopping, though we couldn’t pass up a hand knitted cactus.
While we might not be up to shopping, that doesn’t mean we skimp on the dining experiences and Marfa has plenty of them. We really loved the wonderful pie from Pizza Foundation. A true must eat. For breakfast, the homemade doughnuts from Buns and Roses (yes, a florist and bakery combo) was a real treat. For a quick bite, Bad Hombres hits the spot, but do expect to be seriously razzed by the staff and you will pay extra if you are from out of town. For a more formal dining experience, the food at The Capri in the Thunderbird Hotel is quite delicious. However, the service was severely lacking during our visit. Our waiter just wandered off the job just after taking our order and never returned leaving chaos in the kitchen and a delayed service.
However, our dining goto was the famous Food Shark, now known the world over due to a visit by Beyonce. Their fresh and unique takes on both Mediterranean and Texas cuisine was delightful and delicious. While you need to try the signature Marfalafel, make sure to sample their weekly specials for some truly unique flavor combinations.
One of the highlights of our trip was a day long art tour by the Chinati Foundation, one of the two museums in town dedicated to showcasing the works of Donald Judd and other minimalist and contemporary artists. I have always disliked the notion in contemporary art that knowledge of the process to create the piece is necessary to the appreciation of the work. To the contrary, the work, to me, must speak for itself without knowledge of the artists intent or process.
For this reason, I found the works of Donald Judd and many of his contemporaries on the tour particularly moving. These ephemeral exhibits set permanently in the massive landscape of the high desert stood on their own as intentional human activity in contrast to the massive impact of nature that surrounds them. In particular, Judd’s massive 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, Roni Horn’s Things That Happen Again: For a Here and a There and Ilya Kabakov’s School No. 6, 1993 were favorites. The latter was such a moving treatise on the vagaries of memories both remembered and forgotten that I haven’t gotten it out my head yet.
We happened to be in Marfa for Valentine’s Day which gave us a truly unique way to celebrate. The almost ghost town of Valentine is about 30 miles to the Northwest of Marfa. It hosts an annual romantic, post-apocalyptic dance party called Valentine’s Day in Valentine, sponsored by the area brewer, Big Bend Brewing Company. It was a freezing cold night, but the venue had placed out large fire pits to warm yourselves between dancing and beer drinking. The lead act was three time Grammy winners, Little Joe y La Familia. Because Valentine’s Day fell during the middle of the week and the temps were in the 40s, the crowd was rather small and heavily filled with locals which was a fantastic way to see this act.
We did meet Casey and Jill, who have started making the event an annual trip. They too are dreaming of getting an RV and hitting the road and it was fun to share stories and dreams. They became our first non-familial house guests when we offered them a place to break from the cold since they were camped up in the Davis Mountains, where it was to fall well below freezing.
We also made a couple of wonderful day trips during our stay in Marfa. The first was down to Presidio, right on the border by way of the Pinto Canyon Road. This was a beautiful but bumpy ride down a dirt road surrounding by astounding desert mountain landscapes and complete solitude.
We also made a trip up to Fort Davis and to the McDonald Observatory for one of their Star Parties. For public radio aficionados, you’ll recognize that name as the creators of the long running StarDate. This was a real highlight of the trip. Not only do you get a general introduction to the sky aided by the world’s most amazing laser pointer, you get access to about a dozen telescopes including a massive 24 inch model through which you get to see wonders such as the Eskimo and Orion nebulas. It’s another not to miss in our book.
As you can see, it was a whirlwind trip for us in Marfa. I’m glad I finally made it and that also that we made it now. Admittedly this is my first time here, but Marfa feels like it is in a rapid transition from quirky and weird art community to something far more established, maybe a Mad Max version of Santa Fe. I think it’s safe to say we will be back through here someday and it will be fascinating to see what has happened to the rail stop town in the middle of nowhere that has created an art movement.