The Paradox of Marfa

I traveled to Marfa, TX a little over a month ago now and since then have tried my best to articulate my experience. I wrote the piece below and was initially published last week over at Vulkan Magazine.

When you mention Marfa, Texas to someone, the response usually tends to be one of two things. Either they’ve never heard of the town, or it tops their list of destinations to visit. For the past few years now, I’ve found myself in the latter group. I’d heard wonderful stories from friends who had ventured there, and read countless articles articulating every detail about the cultural oasis in the middle of nowhere. But for those of you who fall into the first category and have no idea where I’m talking about, Marfa is a quiet town situated in the high desert of West Texas, in an area known as Trans-Pecos. It’s three hours away from the closest airport and has a population that hovers right around 2,000. Marfa gained its notoriety in the 70s, when minimalist artist Donald Judd exited the bustling streets of New York City to permanently set up shop in the desert landscape. Judd eventually ended up purchasing over 60,000 acres of land, where his work would be on permanent display. Since then, the town has continued to grow and attract creative individuals, as well as cultured city dwellers looking to escape and just slow down for a bit.

From what I had gathered, Marfa seemed like a place that was too good to be true – a place that wasn’t concerned with modern society or trends and filled with all sorts of creative individuals. A place so uniquely its own that it had to be experienced to be understood. As I dug deeper and deeper, I hoped that going to Marfa would some how help me find something in myself, or gain understanding in some way. I wanted to have an experience. But buried within my excitement was the fear that this magical place had already hit its peak, and the town, already exposed to too much outside influence. With all the publicity and fame that Marfa has garnered, I worried that it had become a place bombarded by annoying hipsters trying to out hipster each other, families popping in on their way to Big Bend, and tourists taking pictures of Prada Marfa just so they could post them on Instagram. The town has become so well known now, that in the past few years, even big name celebrities like Beyonce and Robert Pattinson have vacationed there. I’m not from Marfa, or even the state of Texas, which does in fact, make me an outsider, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something in this town that would resonate with me. Something that felt as if it had always been there for me. After talking about it for years, I finally decided to make the trip and discover Marfa for myself.

My girlfriend and I decided to drive from Los Angeles and turn it into a good old-fashioned road trip. After hitting El Paso, which is the closest city to Marfa, it’s about 3 more hours of nothingness until you reach town. We took the I-10 West and then picked up Route 90 at Van Horn. From there, it’s another hour on an empty two-lane road, which takes you right into the heart of Marfa. Driving in, the first thing you’ll see is arguably the most popular attraction, Prada Marfa, which technically isn’t even located in Marfa, but a tiny town called Valentine about 25 minutes northwest. Sculpture artists Elmgreen and Dragset permanently installed the storefront building in 2005. The nonprofit Ballroom Marfa curates the exhibit, which is filled with actual pieces hand-picked by Miuccia Prada herself, from the fall/winter 2005 collection. Yes, like any other good tourists we took dozens of pictures here. There’s something magical about seeing the element of high fashion placed in the barren desert. It’s the perfect backdrop. There’s nothing out here. Just dirt, cows, and a rickety old train that passes by every so often.

Driving into town, the speed limit abruptly drops from 80 to 35, as it does in many parts of Texas, and Route 90 then turns into San Antonio Street. As you enter into Marfa, the Thunderbird Hotel sets the tone. Originally built in 1959, it’s an old school hotel that’s been reinvigorated to meet the needs of the modern traveler. It seemed like a jazzed up place, but we didn’t stay there, so I honestly can’t say much about it. As you continue down San Antonio, you’ll run into the main intersection and the only stop light in town. Drive 3 minutes in any direction and you’ll no longer be in Marfa. The town is that small. We made a right hand turn on Highland, and in less than a quarter of a mile we found our place of residence for the next few days…El Cosmico.

Aside from Prada Marfa, El Cosmico may be the second most well known destination in Marfa. The boutique campground is owned and operated by the Bunk House Group, which owns a number of properties throughout Texas. Spread out over the 8 acres of land is a number of trailers, yurts, teepees, and tents. There’s even space where you can pitch your own tent. The grounds are also home to the Trans-Pecos Festival, which is now in its 11th year and has grown substantially since its humble beginning. We opted to stay in a tent while we were there, as it was the cheapest option, but we were roughing it by no means. Many would call this “glamping.” The office was appropriately designed and featured free wifi, plenty of Texas and craft beers, and a store with an assortment of overpriced, perfectly curated knickknacks. There was a communal kitchen on the grounds, as well as 2 sets of outdoor showers/bathrooms that were absolutely wonderful. There’s nothing quite like sex under the stars in an outdoor shower. To my surprise, most of our camping neighbors were young couples from Austin away for the weekend, or families passing through, their little kids running around. This is typically a “slower” time of the year for Marfa, particularly during the beginning of the week, which is when we happened to be there.

Having never stepped foot in Marfa, I imagined that venturing into town would find us running into cowboys wearing worn down leather boots and riding horses, or eclectic and eccentric personalities donning handlebar mustaches and high-waisted trousers. But to my surprise, both of those archetypes were pretty much non-existent. What I did find were groups of old people with fanny packs around their waists and random people passing through who had heard from a friend that they should check out the funky little town. The town is so small that we kept running into the same families that were camping next to us. All of this made me feel as if my fears about Marfa were true. How could some stiff from the suburbs know about this wonderful town full of art and design? How could these little kids possibly appreciate the pace of this place? Why is everyone here on their damn phones? I was frustrated in some ways, but I felt as if there was still more to uncover.

We spent a day just riding bikes from one end of town to the other, exploring everything we could. We saw high-end hotels next to abandoned buildings. There were silos for storing grain and bulk materials down the street from galleries storing fine art. We discovered hidden works and messages in the oddest locations. We met locals who have spent their entire lives in the town. I found that there’s a certain charm to Marfa that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Sure, getting off the grid for a bit is always nice, and the fresh air is always a welcomed joy to my lungs. And of course, the people who have been in a town forever always have a way of making you feel welcomed, but that wasn’t quite all of it. One of the first things I said was how much I felt like this could be some little town in a movie. I found out later that Hollywood has actually had a love affair with Marfa since the 1950s. The last film that James Dean made before he died was filmed there, as well No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Marfa has a way of feeling like a place you know so well, even if you’ve never been there.

You can read countless articles that describe every detail in Marfa, including where to eat and which galleries are the best. You can talk to plenty of people who have been through town and know it like the back of their hand. But at the end of the day, Marfa is a place that you just have to experience for yourself. I thought it would be some Mecca for creative individuals – a place where you could have some sort of existential experience or find profound meaning. But that’s not what I found there. Maybe it can be that. It can also be a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere filled with over priced restaurants, tourists, hipsters, and anyone else looking for something a little different. But if you dig deep enough, it really can be whatever you want it to be, and that’s the beauty of Marfa. Somewhere along the way, I realized it’s a place that existed long before James Dean and Donald Judd and it will continue to exist long after the hipsters and celebrities stop retreating there. Marfa doesn’t care what your agenda is. It’s a town that’s uninterested in who you are or what you’re doing. It’s like the girl that doesn’t pay any attention to you no matter how hard you try; and somehow that makes you want her even more. Marfa feels like it’s a place of your own, but you can’t quite have it. You can only hope that maybe she gives you a glance along the way.

Mike