It’s been several days since I’ve returned from Marfa, Texas – a place they say is “Tough to get to. Tougher to explain. But once you get here, you get it.”
I’m not quite sure I get it, but I’ll explain as much as I can.
On Saturday morning, I set out west in the morning, and planned to drive through Marfa to get to Valentine, Texas – home of the Prada Marfa installation. And that’s exactly what I did.
For the most part, the drive wasn’t near as rural as I expected. There really was no stretch of land without gas stations, food, or rest areas (maybe one-hour stretches) as I had read online. There was, however, lots of cattle to see along with mountains and desert scenery – it was beautiful.
About 30 minutes outside Marfa is a town called Alpine. It’s small, but loaded with stuff! There was the Big Bend Brewery and a visitor’s center, and it’s home to a super nice-looking University, where I later learned that most people in the area attend.
Between Alpine and Marfa proper is the Marfa Lights Viewing Area, which is in the middle of NOTHING.
Anyway, I drove through Marfa (it takes about 3 minutes to get from one side of town to the other), and made it the 30 miles further west to Valentine (population 217). I was seriously SO excited to see the Prada Marfa, and when I pulled up, there were several cars parked across from it with the same intentions.
It looks a little smaller than I imagined, but still just as cool. It’s not too risky to run across the highway, because there’s not many people passing through Valentine. Up close, I’ll admit, things look a tad creepy. The shoes and bags inside have been there for 13 years, and they are dusty and weathered. Surrounding the installation is a chain-link fence where people have placed locks, because we just have to put locks on every possible fence, right?
When I’d seen what I needed to see, I headed back east to Marfa to check in to my trailer at El Cosmico.
El Cosmico is off the main drag in Marfa, and is just as cute as promised. The lobby serves as a provisions store, too, and they’ve got some cool stuff, and it looks like an expensive camp, which I suppose it sort of is.
I got my key, and hauled all of my bags via a little wagon that embarrassingly rattled down the rocky path all the way to my trailer.
My trailer, “Amigo”, was pink and silver, and cute! It was a little smaller than I imagine, but definitely big enough for me and probably another person. There was a booth, a kitchenette, and a full-size bed.
They had towels, robes, shampoo, and kitchen utensils, which was a nice surprise. My toilet was outside, shared with one other trailer, along with a shower.
After I got settled, it started storming, and I was suddenly so thankful for my trailer and felt sorry for all the campers in the teepees. I decided to order a pizza and pick it up, so I called into Pizza Foundation, where there’s about 3 pizzas to choose from, and I guess they always have a 2-hour wait.
They didn’t tell me a time to come get it, so I decided to go check out “town”. I quickly realized that yeah, this place is tiiiiiiny. You’re lucky if the road is paved, and because of the rain, many of them were flooded.
The only big name store I saw was Dollar General, so I stopped there to kill time. When I made it to Pizza Foundation, there was still a wait on my pizza, but they had a stock of beer from Big Bend Brewery, so I grabbed a seat and started sipping.
Pizza Foundation is likely the only place to get a pizza in town, and despite its popularity, its in a big warehouse that has little decoration and uses card tables for dining. And yes, everyone that came in was told there was a 2-hour wait on pizza.
I got my pie (an 18-inch, because there’s only one size) and took it back to my trailer where I proceeded to drink an entire bottle of wine and eat half the pizza while it continued to storm. I nixed my plans to search for the Marfa Lights because I figured they wouldn’t appear in the rain.
I quickly slept in a fog of wine, and rain on a tin roof. I woke up feeling pretty rested, and I was ready to mark things off my list of sights to see.
My first adventure was making coffee in a percolator, which was in my kitchenette. It was too small to keep the induction heater on, so I took it outside to the outdoor shared kitchen and put it on a hot plate. This wasn’t really working, so I went back to my trailer and called maintenance.
The maintenance man came and probably thought I was an idiot, until he saw the problem, too, and I ended up rigging the induction heater long enough to make one cup of coffee, which was less-than-stellar.
I immediately went to Squeeze, where I got a cup of Big Bend coffee the size of my head and some scrambled eggs which I ate in about 2 minutes.
Then, I headed to the Chinati Foundation, where I was excited to see the famous works from Donald Judd. The cement blocks were free, but I paid $10 to see a few other things – his untitled mill aluminum boxes, and “Dawn to Dusk” by Robert Irwin.
Oddly, the Robert Irwin installation was a little bit of a drive from the Chinati Foundation and it was definitely at the end of a neighborhood road (many of these houses were run-down). When I walked up to the building, an employee reminded me not to touch anything inside, and no pictures.
Basically, the entire building was the art, and the inside goes from complete light to complete dark (or vis-versa depending on how you approach it). I realized then that I’ve never really seen modern art like this, and it was pretty trippy.
Next, I went back to Chinati to see the 15 Untitled Works in Cement. These are located in a patch of desert, and while there is a path around them, you’d have to walk in the desert brush to get anywhere near them.
So, I put on my boots and ventured as far as my fears would let me. There were deer, bunnies, cloudy skies, and I was fine until I saw several buzzards, and it took everything I had not to run in the other direction.
It is said that these concrete blocks were made to work with the environment, and they do – oddly. They serve sort of as frames to various parts of the desert, but they just stood so strong, that my feeling of eeriness was heightened even more.
Next, I moved on to his 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum. These mill aluminum boxes are stored in two sheds that previously stored artillery. They are brick with steel curved roofs; there’s 48 boxes in the first building and 52 in the second.
And you could hear a pin drop in these buildings. So imagine how it sounds when someone opens the metal doors to get in and out? Yikes.
These mill aluminum boxes are all the same dimensions on the outside, but inside, there’s different shapes or formations of the aluminum, which eventually starts to play tricks on the eyes. I know they offer sunrise viewings of these, and since there’s so many windows in the building, I’ve heard the reflections are really cool.
It was neat overall, and I looked at every. Single. Box. But I honestly didn’t understand that a place like Marfa, known for its art, drawing people from all over, how is it that these boxes were dusty and had at least 1 dead bug inside each one?
Like… can we get a vacuum here? I mean that just seems disrespectful, and a horsefly or whatever it was is super obvious against a complete aluminum structure. Just saying.
Next, I went to Frama – a coffee shop inside the Tumbleweed Laundromat. I got a hazelnut latte with almond milk for $5 and it was awesome.
It was about this time that I started to wonder about Marfa. Yes, there were cute spots to go visit, but as I ventured from spot to spot, it was obvious that the roads needed work, the homes were old and run-down, and I wondered where all of the money from tourism was going? Was it really doing this town any good?
I had a few shops I wanted to visit, so I went to those next: Moon Gems and Freda. To my shock, Moon Gems had wooden crates of rocks scattered outside. I was so confused, especially since there were several hipsters drooling over the piles of $2 rocks.
Inside, there were finer gems on display, but I left empty-handed.
When I got to Freda, it was about the size of a walk-in closet, and there were a few candles for sale, bars of soap, and a tray of necklaces that were about $200. I was out of there.
I was hoping to have drinks and a lite lunch at The Capri Bar, but when I arrived, it looked completely empty and closed for good. So, I headed to Jett’s Grill at the Paisano Hotel – the set for several movies and home of the spiciest salsa in town.
I had a few margaritas, chips and salsa, and was literally the only person sitting there for hours. This is possibly where things turned even more for me – where WAS everyone? Was this what small town life was like?
I paid my tab and went to the shops inside the hotel where I found a few souvenirs, and then I headed back to my trailer.
Things were starting to get to me. I’d pretty much seen everything on my list, felt like everywhere I went I was alone, and I couldn’t quite understand what was so special about this place. It seemed almost sad to me.
I was also getting a little tired of the silence. Without wifi or a cell signal, I couldn’t listen to podcasts, so I turned on the radio in my trailer to the only station in town: Marfa Public Radio. I fell asleep in my bed and snoozed off the tequila.
When I woke up, I wanted to do something fun, and I had one place left on my list to go: Cochineal.
So, I changed clothes, and put on lipstick and ventured out. It was early for dinner, but I knew this was usually a busy place. When I walked in however, most of the tables were empty.
“Do you have a reservation?” the hostess asked.
I didn’t, and I still got a table, because NO ONE IS IN THIS CITY, I thought.
I was delighted to see all of the yummy-looking things on the menu, and my waitress was really nice. I ordered a glass of rose and got the ceviche.
Upon finishing said ceviche, I ordered a piece of fish, and proceeded to have an anxiety attack. I have dealt with anxiety for years, and as of late, it has combined with grief, and in general I am still a mess.
I felt hot, shaky, and sick, and I needed to leave, immediately. I tried to keep my cool and got my food boxed and paid my check – sadly leaving a majority of my wine in its glass. And I went to my trailer to try and cope.
The thing is, anxiety attacks can creep up at any point, sometimes they happen when you’re feeling great! But, I knew I was suppressing feelings of Father’s Day, and general feelings of being alone out in the middle of nowhere.
I was also tired of the cloudy skies, the desolate roads, and the silence. At home, in Austin, I’ve managed to create a plan for myself when I’m feeling low: I seek comfort in my kitty Blanche, watch a funny show on TV, or listen to Johnjay and Rich.
I’d left all of those things 7 hours east.
I was also a little tired of having every little thing seem different: I was tired of using an outdoor toilet, tired of jiggling the lock on my trailer door to get inside, tired of everyone knowing I was a tourist, and tired of not understanding anything about this town.
After talking with a few friends via phone, I felt a little better, or at least, better enough to head out of town and see these famous mystery Marfa Lights.
I heard mixed things about the perfect time to see these lights that supposedly only appear 15-30 times a year. I decided to go in time to see the sunset, and then I’d see how long I wanted to stay out there.
I went out around 8:30, and the sunset was gorgeous. It seemed unreal.
There were a lot of people at this viewing center, which was slightly raised and had a few built in sets of binoculars.
I was standing there just looking into the distance, when an older woman came up beside me.
“So, do you think we’re going to get to see the lights?” she asked.
“I hope so,” I said. “It seems clear, right?”
She introduced herself. Her name was Connie and she lived in Pennsylvania. She’d ridden to Marfa on a motorcycle, along with her husband and their friends, who shortly joined us on the platform.
They started telling me stories of all the places they’d biked, and we swapped information about the lights – times to see them, what we were supposed to be looking for, etc.
After about 30 minutes, Connie and her friends were convinced tonight was not the night for the lights.
“You probably came out here to enjoy some peace and quiet,” her husband said.
“No, I’m thankful for your company,” I said.
“Well, enjoy your vacation, or whatever it is you’re hoping to find out here,” her friend said.
I smiled. What exactly was I hoping to find out here?
With any trip I take, I’m always looking for a bit of an escape a change of pace, a chance to see how other people live, try new food, see what’s out there… and in a way, I suppose you always end up learning a lot about yourself when you’re out of your element.
By the time Connie and her friends left, it was beyond dark. The sky was dark, the desert even darker. But the stars were so clear, it looked like someone tossed a fistful of glitter into the sky and it stuck.
In the distance, there were lights, but conversations started to buzz about what lights were accounted for – a cell phone tower had a red light on it, and a distant highway was home to moving headlights.
But around 10pm, a staggering line of three small lights twinkled near the cell phone tower. They moved up and down, and sometimes disappeared entirely.
A woman next to me was quiet, but I pointed toward the lights, “What are those?”
“The lights!” she said.
Her son was a Marfa resident, and he said he’d never seen them so bright. Looking through a telescope, he explained his theory on what the lights were: a reflection of some sort from the moon. He said that even when researchers went to the spot directly under these lights, they couldn’t be seen.
The lights weren’t how I imagined – but they had been described many different ways. To me, they looked like little white twinkle lights – but appeared together like they were connected somehow.
After a terrible night of barely sleeping, I left Marfa right after sunrise. I was ready to get home. Looking back on my trip, I’m glad I went and saw what I’ve heard so much about. But the best way I can describe it now is from Robert Irwin, “Dawn to Dusk”.
It went from exciting and vibrant to dark and creepy, physically and mentally. But that’s the risk you take going on your own – everything relies on you, and sometimes that depends on what’s happening inside your head at the time.
West Texas was simply a backdrop for another adventure, but the Mystery Lights were certainly a bright spot in a desert of darkness.
While I have never been to Marfa, Texas, I have been doing lots of research to figure out some things I want to do while I’m camping there this weekend. Yes, I said camp. I’ll get to that…
What I’ve found is that, while Marfa is sort of a town known for being small and weird and remote, there’s enough to entertain just about anyone for a few days. I’ve put together a list of possible activities:
Lodging: El Cosmico
I mentioned camping, but it’s more like glamping, as I’ve booked my stay at the most well-known place in town, El Cosmico campground. There are safari tents, yurts, teepees, and vintage trailers. I’ve got a reservation in a trailer, so I won’t quite be one with the elements, but I’ll still be using the outhouse and the shared shower. It’s going to be rough enough.
Must-see: Marfa Lights
During the 19th century, ranchers, Apaches, and meteorologists reported seeing strange lights along the horizon, with no source in sight. Today, the mysterious lights draw tourists from across the country. The real kick? They are only seen about 15 times a year, and are often described differently by anyone who sees them. Marfa has an open field where light-seekers gather each night hoping to see the ghostly orbs.
Art: Chinati Foundation
I guess you could say the Chinati Fountain was where it all began, since minimalist artist Donald Judd created his art installations that made Marfa an art mecca worth traveling for. His art philosophy was to be one with nature, and between his cement boxes and reflective sculptures, many have said his work is memorizing.
The draw: Prada Marfa
Many people are drawn to Marfa by its 2005 art installation of a Prada store front – but it’s not actually IN Marfa – it’s 40 minutes outside of the city. Don’t worry, I’ve got to see it – but it will add an extra 2 hours to my trip home. From what I’ve heard, it’s quite a sight, so I’m looking forward to it.
I’ve heard mixed reviews about the food in Marfa – some people say it’s impressive, others say you’re so hungry that you’ll eat anything. But everything I’ve heard about Cochineal sounds great – the food, the drinks, the atmosphere – and apparently they have vegan items!
Drinks: The Capri
The Capri is located inside Thunderbird Hotel, known for the movies filmed there. I’ve heard great things about the food, and even if it’s subpar, it sounds like the scenery is worth a visit.
While El Cosmico appears to have an impressive provisions shop, I’ve heard Freda is the place to get envious souvenirs, including unique jewelry. I’m there!
This coffee shop is not only inside the Tumbleweed Laundromat, but it also has a menu made entirely of Scrabble tiles. Say no more.
And that’s my list! Am I going to do ALL of these things? Maybe. Here’s the thing about Marfa, and West Texas in general, the locals are on their own schedule. Many, if not all, businesses do not operate under regular business hours. Some tourists have said there are nights when no restaurants are open, so there’s that (I am packing plenty of food).
The other thing is (and I’ll get more into this in a later post), I’m really trying to go with the flow for this trip. I’m not going to have cell service, wifi, or TV – there is a single radio station – so I’m just going to sort of wander and do whatever. If that means resting in a hammock at El Cosmico all afternoon, then that’s where I’ll be.
Tomorrow, I’m talking about famous road trips!