On one of our trips to Fort Davis years ago, We visited Marfa, which is 21 miles south. This was back when just about the only thing this tiny town was known for was its mysterious Marfa “ghost” lights. I don’t remember anything about our time in Marfa other than the fact that we did see the lights, and yes, they were a bit freaky. But other than that, Marfa seemed like just any other little West Texas town (population: 1,819 as of 2013).
Our first inkling that Marfa was moving up in the world was when we saw it featured on 60 Minutes in 2013. I had expected a story about the mystery lights; what else was there to talk about for an entire segment of this in-depth news program? But the lights weren’t even mentioned. Instead, Morley Safer talked about Marfa’s evolution into an oasis of art in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert.
That’s when we realized that Marfa had changed, and that our beloved West Texas had been discovered by outsiders, and not just any outsiders, but Yankees. Marfa had all kinds of write-ups in all sorts of major magazines, including Vogue, Vanity Fair, and New York Magazine as well as numerous features in the New York Times. An In Style article pointed out that many famous people, including Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Beyoncé’s entourage, among others, have all “made the pilgrimage” to Marfa, and, according to the article, the town is “filled with renounced urbanites…from the most exciting cities in the world,” who “stumbled into Marfa and never left.”
Such hype! Such buzz! Beyoncé! (or, at least, her entourage…)
What transformed Marfa into such a happening place? It seems that much of the transformation can be traced back to minimalist modern artist Donald Judd, who moved here from New York City in 1971 and established a permanent studio here. He would work here for the next three decades and also established two foundations, the Judd Foundation, the artist’s living/working space, and the Chinati, named after the nearby mountains.
The Chinati is a non-profit art foundation that displays works of art by Judd as well as other artists. The foundation sits on 340 acres of land the Judd purchased in the 1970s and includes the abandoned former U.S. Army Fort D.A. Russell. Judd’s works of art displayed here include 15 clusters of concrete blocks that sit in an open expanse outside of the fort’s buildings, as well as 100 aluminum pieces displayed in two renovated artillery sheds.
These days, there are many art galleries and collectives in town that draw big name artists and thousands of visitors each year. It has become something of an art mecca.
Ah, Marfa, we knew you when…
I did a some online reading to prioritize what Dale and I should see during our day trip to Marfa.
Our first stop was the Presidio County Court House, in the center of Marfa, because its tower supposedly has the best views in Marfa.
This beautiful old building, which dates back to 1886, had two wide staircases with dark polished wood, shiny and smooth to the touch. We climbed three stories to the tower only to find it closed. Bummer.
“We should just ask someone if they’ll let us go up,” Dale said.
After several attempts we found an open office containing two women. This was obviously not an information center, but they were quite friendly, and and when we asked about going up to the dome, one of them stood without hesitation and went next door (I believe it was to the office of a judge), knocked, and asked someone inside to open it for us. A few minutes later, a pretty woman wearing a short dress and cowboy boots came out and told us to go up to the third floor and someone would meet us there.
We did as we were told and were greeted by a smiling sheriff’s deputy, who unlocked the entrance. We climbed up to the dome, and indeed the view was quite nice, with 360 degree views of Marfa as well as the desert and mountains beyond. When we were done, the same courteous deputy showed us out. We were charmed by this act of small-town hospitality, with several people taking time out of their day to accommodate us.
Next up, we had some time to kill until lunch, and so we decided to drive the 37 miles down Highway 90 to the Prada Marfa. No, this isn’t a real store; it’s an art installation of a Prada boutique, complete with shoes and bags, just sitting all by its lonesome on the highway. It’s just there because, well, it’s art.
It sounded like something worth seeing, but on the drive we got distracted. I mentioned in the last post that we’re birders, and we kept having to pull over because we were seeing amazing birds. Remember the burrowing owl? Dale spotted it sitting on a low barbed-wire fence, and that’s how we discovered its burrow. Then we saw the prairie falcon. And there were enormous ravens and lots of other birds. So what should’ve been a fairly short drive turned into a long one because we kept stopping to look at birds, and we only made it about halfway to Prada Marfa before our growling stomachs urged us to turn around. We never made it back.
Lunch was Mediterranean food at the Food Shark, a food truck that was recommended by every source about Marfa that I read. We were not disappointed. Dale’s lamb kebab and my combo falafel/hummus plate were quite delicious. We sat outside on the “patio” (a bit of a stretch) behind the food truck and enjoyed our meal with the dozens of others who showed up. Customers included two well-dressed, middle-aged women obviously in town for some shopping, as well as numerous younger, hipster-ish folks who looked like they belonged in Austin or Seattle instead of West Texas. Numerous locals also came, including a large Hispanic family and several older men who pulled up in beat-up trucks. It appealed to everyone!
Because we’re budget travelers (and therefore tightwads), we didn’t pay much attention to the shopping options in town, but apparently Marfa offers multiple unique options, including a thrift store and shops that sell handmade goods and local art. Because we love bookstores, we stopped in at the Marfa Book Company, a small, carefully curated store and cafe that also displays artwork for sale.
Other than that, we avoided going into any shops, but from what I read, shopping is a big tourist draw. Case in point, when we visited the Tourist Information Center, Dale overheard a conversation between a staff member and a visitor. The employee was attempting to help the man sort through the town’s highlights, but he kept interrupting. “Yeah, but, where’s the shopping?”
“Well there are several places in town.”
“OK, just tell me the closest spot and how to get there.”
He was with a car-full of women, and I’m guessing they had come to Marfa to shop!
Our last stop was the Chinati Foundation. There were several tour options, including walking amongst the concrete art installations outside for free, taking a self-guided tour through Donald Judd’s 100 aluminum pieces in the artillery sheds ($10.00/person), or taking a guided tour of a larger portion of the foundation’s works ($25.00). We opted just to stroll among the concrete boxes. The walk was through a shadeless meadow and the sun was intense, but we actually really enjoyed exploring the enormous squares clustered into different patterns. I can’t say that we necessarily understood what we were seeing, but it was fun to hypothesize: A comment on the dullness of modern society? The fact that there is order in the chaos? Or maybe he meant nothing at all?
A day or two after we visited Marfa, we talked to Jennifer, our campsite neighbor at Davis Mountains State Park. She and her family were going to spend an afternoon in Marfa, and she was intrigued by what she’d heard about the town. When we saw her later that day and asked her for her impressions, she said, “It’s like the whole city of Marfa is a modern art project and we just don’t get it.”
Admittedly, Marfa has a quirky, abstract quality to it, but Dale and I really enjoyed our short visit. The combination of small-town Texas with modernist art and high-brow shopping is definitely a unique mix. In the end, I’m glad that Marfa was “discovered,” because the addition of the new to the old has only made the town a more interesting place to visit.
Other random facts about Marfa:
- Marfa, supposedly named after a character in Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, was established in 1883 as the freight headquarters for several railways. At its highest, its population reached 3900 residents in the 1930s, and during the 1940s the Chemical Warfare Brigades and a World War II POW camp were stationed here.
- Marfa sits at over 4800 feet above sea level on a highland plain known as the Marfa Plateau.
- The classic film Giant, James Dean’s final movie, was filmed here in 1956, and Dean, as well as his co-stars Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Dennis Hopper, could frequently be found at the historic Hotel Paisano, where many of the actors stayed during the filming. More recently, the movies There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men were also filmed here.
- Marfa is home to El Cosmico, an 18-acre campground offering the quirkiest variety of lodging options around, including teepees, airstream trailers, and yurts.
- It takes an average of 12 hours to reach Marfa from many major U.S. cities. A trip involves a flight into El Paso or Midland and then a drive from there. We flew to London in less time!