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.
I leave for Marfa, Texas early tomorrow morning – my bags are packed, my rental car is ready for pickup, and I’m reflecting on why I wanted to make this unique trip in the first place.
I heard about Marfa for the first time on an episode of “Courtney Loves Dallas” (on Bravo), when her friends join her for a road trip across Texas to see Prada Marfa. I honestly can’t remember if they did much else, but she later went on to make a Marfa t-shirt for her blog followers, and continues to shoot promotional items for her blog within Marfa:
I thought the Prada Marfa was cool enough to see one day, and when I moved to Austin almost 3 years ago (!), I knew I had to visit one day.
Truthfully, I’ve always enjoyed camping experiences. As a kid, my babysitter had a pop-up camper and I thought it was such an adventure. I loved walking around the campground to see how other people set up their temporary homes – with lights and patches of plastic grass.
I also loved it when the local mall had their camper and RV show – I loved looking through all of them, and thought they all looked so fancy.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted an adventure in some sort of desert (or deserted) environment. I have long romanticized life out west – perhaps that’s why I love Texas so much. The cacti, tumbleweeds, dust clouds, and horses have always appealed to me.
Like my dad, I’ve got a bit of a fascination with small towns – how people inhabit them and never leave; how they create lives off-the-grid; and how it all contributes to some semblance of meaning for us city folk.
Like anyone about to hit the road, I’m looking for clarity, a bit of a challenge, and a new perspective. I have always believed that in order to create, we must constantly work our creative muscles; always looking for new things to discover and digest.
But of course, I’m looking to unplug a bit, too. Work has been incredibly stressful, and lately, the weekends just aren’t enough time for me to recharge. I also randomly picked this weekend to travel, and as the days have crept closer, I see I’ll be well west on Father’s Day – I’m really thankful that I won’t be able to see anymore online chatter about the holiday I’m missing this year.
Grief has been so hard on my heart, my mind, my body, and my social life. I know one weekend won’t solve it for me, but I hope that with each adventure I take on my own, I grow stronger and more confident in the daily challenges I face.
I’m really looking forward to actual quiet, the quiet I’ve only experienced in the Tennessee mountains at night. That same darkness, too – it brings rest.
And of course, I’m hoping to have fun, meet people, share stories, eat local food, and take pictures; spend some time in a hammock with a book, or sit outside with my journal.
Whatever happens out there, I look forward to telling you all about it.
Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.
As of September 1, I’ve been living in Austin for two years. I came to this city with the intention of furthering my career, and really taking it as an opportunity to start fresh, leave the past behind me, and just LIVE my life.
So, I made a bucket list specifically for Austin, and I’m proud to say I’ve tackled at least half of it (if not more). Many of the items on my list got checked off this past weekend, when my best friend came to visit! We had so much fun, I wanted to share some of the things we did.
See the bats on Congress Bridge
Each fall, the biggest bat colony IN THE WORLD assembles itself under the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin. These are Mexican free-tailed bats, and they stick around until it gets chilly and then fly off to Mexico. Everyday, they sleep in the crevices of the bridge, and fly out at dusk to find dinner. And crowds come out in hoards to see them.
So, my friend and I took a “bat cruise”, where we got way too close (pretty sure we got pissed on) to said bats, but were in complete awe when the 1.5 million of the little guys came flying out from underneath the bridge. The sound of them squeaking will possibly ALWAYS be a memory.
Hike Mount Bonnell
Okay, so this wasn’t on my bucket list, but it’s one of the most well-known hikes in the city, particularly because of its stellar views all the way around. It’s a fairly easy hike and you can see the downtown skyline, the tower and stadium at the University of Texas, and there’s a great shot of the Colorado River. Absolutely gorgeous!
Paddle board on Lady Bird Lake
This wasn’t on my list either, although I did list “Have an adventure on Lake Travis”, which I did in August when I went on a pontoon boat across the lake! However, I have never been paddle boarding! I’ve been kayaking once, on the Colorado River, so my friend and I decided to grab some paddle boards, and we were able to paddle behind one of the stages at ACL and hear some live music before paddling back to the dock. It was fantastic!
Tour Jester King Brewery
The Jester King Brewery is basically out in the middle of nowhere, but I’m ALL about these sorts of adventures, especially in Texas. So, my friend and I drove southwest, and ended up on the working ranch where the brewery lives, right next to Stanley’s Pizza, which is a glorified barn, complete with a fire oven. This place made all of my Texas dreams come true: beer and wine served in mason jars, a pasture, live chickens, fresh beer, and chandeliers hanging from beams in the barn. And that pizza was delicious!
Hit up Rainey Street
I’ve already been to 6th street several times, but Rainey Street is supposedly more of the local’s place to get rowdy. We checked out Icenhauer’s, where we both got some fancy cocktails (her’s had grilled pineapple in it), and then we went to the Parlor Room, which seemed a little more college-esque. But still, a very good time.
Go to ACL
Also not on my bucket list, but a recent wish of mine has been to go to ACL, because why not? I live 15 minutes away! So, we got 1-day passes and completely lived our best festival lives and saw Tank and the Bangas, Run the Jewels, Vance Joy, The Killers, and about three minutes of Gorillaz. We both fell in love with the Silent Disco, drank our fair share of beer, and enjoyed a local favorite: Torchy’s Tacos. The frozen sangria was also tasty.
See Graffiti Park
This was a perfect stop on the way to the airport – closing off a three-day weekend of Texas fun. The Graffiti Park at Castle Hills has art on art on art. People are tagging it every day, and there were already messages of hope sprayed on the walls for Vegas and Houston. Plus there were plenty of owls, skulls, and pop culture references. A must see!
When I visited Indiana in June, many of the things I was told we could do, we didn’t end up doing, and that bothered me. I meet lots of people who are happy living where they were born and raised, and that’s great – but these are often the people that let life pass them by. I’m a firm believer in being a tourist where you live; making the most of each situation; and just going for it!
Other things I’ve crossed off my list include: get a pedicure at Caesar’s salon, eat at the Hula Hut, and one upcoming thing will be eating sushi at Uchiko!