Most city slogans are kind of dumb. Even if they sound clever at first, they begin to annoy over time. I’d be happy if I never heard, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” again. Or “Keep Austin Weird.” If you’ve been to Austin lately, you know that battle has been lost. But whoever came up with the slogan for Marfa, Texas, nailed it: “Tough to get to. Tougher to explain.”
Marfa is so far deep in southwest Texas, it’s practically in Mexico. The nearest city is El Paso, 200 miles away, and the closest interstate is an hour drive. To get to Marfa, you have to want to go there.
As for why you’d want to go, it’s complicated.
It might be the austere beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert, where the sky looks extraordinarily big and blue above the flat, dry landscape. Or perhaps it’s the high altitude, just 600 feet below Denver. Maybe it’s the way the wide-open space makes you feel small, or the collective energy emanating from the cowboys and artists who live there. Most likely it’s a combination of all those things, plus who knows what exactly. There’s just something mysteriously appealing about Marfa that casts a spell on you.
The opening of Prada Marfa in 2005 was the first I heard of the place. The site-specific installation by artists Elmgreen and Dragset looks like a genuine Prada store erected on a desert highway, but the door is permanently locked, and if you look closely, the shoes and purses in the windows are coated in dust. The installation generated national press, attracting widespread attention to the tiny town and its contemporary art scene.
Marfa’s origins as a mini art Mecca began in the ’70s when Donald Judd, an influential minimalist artist and critic, moved there. He began buying up buildings and acreage to permanently display his and others’ large-scale artworks. Judd died in 1994, but his legacy endures at the Chinati Foundation, a 340-acre museum exhibiting his outdoor concrete installations and aluminum pieces, as well as works by Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg and others.
Last year, Amazon aired a darkly comic series set in Marfa called “I Love Dick,” about a character loosely based on Judd. The town’s stark landscape is as much a character as those portrayed by Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Hahn. The same goes for other features filmed here, such as “There Will be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men” and the 1956 classic “Giant,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. Marfa’s rough-hewn beauty sets a tone in those movies that’s hard to shake.
So when I had reason to drive cross-country from Atlanta to Los Angeles this past summer, I plotted my route along I-10 through Texas so I could take a side trip to Marfa, and I brought a friend along for the ride.
We were three days into our journey when we arrived. The town was in mid-swelter from a heat wave, the temperature on my car’s instrument panel reading 110 degrees. After checking into the sleek, modern Hotel Saint George, built in 2016 by a local entrepreneur, we set out for a walk in the blinding sunlight to stretch our knotted-up limbs.
Marfa encompasses an area of just 1.6 square miles anchored by one intersection of highways and an active railroad track, so our walkabout didn’t take long. According to the 2010 census, the population is just shy of 2,000, and they all appeared to be taking refuge from the heat because we felt like the only people in town.
Soon enough, we turned a corner and saw a faded, mostly windowless block building with a sign out front proclaiming it the Lost Horse Saloon, so we went inside to have a couple Lone Stars. The ghost town vibe continued within, but to be fair, it was the middle of a workday. A dozen spent beer bottles littered a table in front of an empty stage set against a backdrop of the Texas flag. The battered pool tables lay silent but a jukebox played classic rock. The only other person besides us was a young bearded bartender who was new on the job. All he could tell us about the place was that the German novels displayed behind the bar were written by the owner’s wife, and the tall, lanky cowboy with a massive drooped mustache and eye patch who sauntered through was the owner. Like all good dive bars, the place had that lived-in feel that made it seem familiar.
Once the sun went down, the town grew lively, especially in and around our hotel. Locals and tourists alike gathered at sidewalk tables, inside the spacious lounge and in LaVenture, the dark, cool restaurant that serves an exceptional steak for half-price to those lucky enough to score a seat at the small bar.
The hotel’s minimalist design using concrete, steel and reclaimed wood manages to be chic and modern in a way that is vastly different from anything else in town but still feels organic and unobtrusive. In place of the standard hotel gift shop, the lobby is home to the Marfa Book Company, selling a well-curated selection of literary fiction, nonfiction and art books, as well as locally made art and apparel.
For a town its size, Marfa has a surprising number of interesting hotels and restaurants that speak to its evolution as a tourist destination. Hotel Paisano, a mission-style hotel built in 1930, is where the cast of “Giant” stayed during filming, and there’s a room in the lobby filled with memorabilia from the movie. At El Cosmico, guests stay the night in their choice of trailer, yurt, teepee or safari tent, or they can pitch their own tents, if they’d rather.
Dining options range from upscale, chef-driven restaurants to funky food trucks. Stellina is a bright, convivial bistro serving plant-forward seasonal dishes with Mexican and Mediterranean flourishes at a communal bar. Water Stop is a casual, converted gas station with a bohemian flair, offering flavor-packed rotisserie chicken, tortas, migas, fresh fruit juices and Mexican beers.
The next day, we drove a half-hour out of town to see Prada Marfa, which is technically in the town of Valentine, Texas. And then we succumbed to the brutal heat and camped out at the hotel pool, where we happily sat in the shade sipping frozen prickly pear margaritas the color of Pepto-Bismol.
Around 9 p.m. that night, we drove nine miles east on U.S. 90 to the Marfa Lights Viewing Area. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was a dimly lit highway rest stop. Instead, it’s a place to sit and comfortably stare into the dark, watching for the mysterious Marfa lights. Eyewitness accounts dating back to the 19th century have reported seeing inexplicable red, blue and white lights dancing on the horizon around Marfa. Sitting quietly in the dark desert, bundled up against the nighttime chill, we looked and looked into the black night, but all we saw was the star-filled sky. As it turned out, that was mystery enough for us.
By Suzanne Van Atten
Published Oct. 7, 2018, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution