In Texas’s Chihuahuan Desert, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, there’s a tiny town that’s home to artists and eccentrics and the occasional visiting actor.
Marfa is a ghost town. Its emptiness engulfs me as I make my way down its backstreets in the late-afternoon heat. I pass not a soul, just buckled weatherboards scabbed with flaking paint and festering mould, corrugated- iron shacks rusted with time, and lots empty but for scrap-metal wrecks and weeds the height of a man. I’m struck by a haunting sense of vacancy yet I feel the burn of eyes spying on me from behind curtains as I walk by.
Beyond the town’s train tracks is the Chihuahuan Desert.
I pause on the train track that bisects the town, searching in both directions for signs of life. There is no movement except for clouds shifting across an enamel-blue sky. I hear, in my imagination, a train whistling mournfully as it snakes across the high desert plateau of Far West Texas. I think of the wife of the railway line’s chief engineer, who is said to have named the town in 1882 after a character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. So remote and unfamiliar is this place, I might as well be in Russia with Marfa and those Karamazov sons right now.
A 1940s service station has been reborn as the Marfa Contemporary gallery.
This is not the welcome I expected. I’ve driven here from El Paso, a three-hour journey that traces the Mexican border and is jammed with cargo trucks. It was a relief when I peeled off onto Route 90 and found myself alone on the road. Now that was the view I’d anticipated: a wide swathe of scrubland curling up into the arid folds of the Chinati Mountains. At Valentine – population 125 – I stopped and peered into the window of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s Prada store, a pop-architectural sculpture conceived as a commentary on Western materialism. Rats’ droppings and cobwebs sully the display – handbags and shoes from Prada’s autumn/winter collection of 2005 – fulfilling the artists’ intention for the work to gradually decompose.
Past guests of Hotel Paisano include Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean.
Forty minutes later, I pulled into Marfa and checked into Hotel Paisano, the hacienda-style lodging where Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson stayed while filming the movie Giant in 1955. But the receptionist delivered disappointing news: it was almost 5pm on a Sunday and Marfa was shutting down after a weekend of entertaining visitors.
No wonder this place feels like a ghost town. Squinting into the sunshine, I cross the railway line and walk westwards along San Antonio Street, Marfa’s main drag. But what is this? Voices rise from a vacant lot. A woman is selling vintage clothing and a group of men are staring into a pot that spits and bubbles over a fire. They beckon for me to join them. A man named Rogelio Tuti stirs the pork and jalapeño stew. Another, Russell Guevara, sets off on a beer run. A third, Billy “Hart” Peterson, tells me that he and his wife, Andrea Compton – the vintage-clothing saleswoman (and a former engineer) – sold their big house in Houston, moved to Marfa and liberated themselves from financial slavery. “Maybe destruction is a form of creation,” he philosophises, bringing to mind that slowly crumbling Prada store.
As I wave them goodbye, Tuti calls after me, “Come back in an hour and you’ve got dinner!”
Eugene Binder gallery in downtown Marfa.
But I end up dining with Mother Nature instead. I’ve walked as far west along San Antonio Street as I can go, past shop windowsills lined with potted cacti, past graffitied Airstream caravans and rusted vintage Fords. I’ve doubled back to Planet Marfa (200 South Abbot Street;
+1 432 386 5099), whose adobe walls obscure yet another communal retreat: people gathered
in sunken teepees and at tree-shaded tables, drinking frozen margaritas served by a woman whose eyes glitter above a scarlet veil. Peterson and Compton are here, too. Come and meet our friend, Mother Nature, they say.
Mother Nature lives in a single room filled with antique furniture, encased behind a ramshackle façade. She thinks nothing of her friends bringing a stranger to dinner, receiving us graciously as an elder or a seer might do. She moved here too many years ago to remember, she tells me, but now Marfa has become too mainstream for her. Sighing, she rises from her seat and serves us steaming bowls of chilli made with jalapeños, onions and four kinds of beans.
Former convenience store and gas station Sandy’s 7 to 11 has been converted into an art hub.
Marfa doesn’t feel so desolate the next day. At the Visitor Center, I meet Kaki Aufdengarten-Scott, who left her drought-stricken home town after graduating from high school and was lured back a decade ago by renewed employment opportunities and the infusion of young blood. “I moved to Alaska. Then one day it got really cold and I thought, ‘I just can’t do this any more.’ I came home to gather my things and move to the west coast and I met a woman here my own age – unusual for Marfa,” she says. “The idea of someone welcoming me back to my home town of 1500 people was preposterous!”
Aufdengarten-Scott recalls going into a café to buy a cup of coffee and leaving with a job. Today, she is the executive director of Marfa’s Chamber of Commerce. Last year, she and her husband “eloped” to the town’s Presidio County Courthouse.
It’s as though Aufdengarten-Scott has flicked a light switch, for Marfa positively glows as I move along its streets this morning. There are whitewashed buildings rimmed with voluptuous tufts of desert grass; a grocery store stocked with glossy organic produce; a self-serve library (“You stamp the book yourself, check it back in and put it on the shelf,” Aufdengarten-Scott told me); and Marfa Public Radio, housed in a former petrol station painted luminous white and adorned with neon signage.
“Volunteer DJs come in at night and play records,” says sound engineer Wesley Smith, who moved to Marfa two years ago. “It’s so peaceful here. The people are so good.”
This was surely the attraction for the late minimalist artist Donald Judd, who moved to Marfa from New York City in the early 1970s and transformed many of its vacant buildings into work and living spaces. These installations are still filled with Judd’s designs, libraries and archives: a matchbox-sized studio here, an imposing adobe gallery there. There’s also a sprawling compound known as The Block that stretches out beside the disused feed mill and those hauntingly empty train tracks. (For guided tours of The Studios and The Block, book ahead at Judd Foundation.) They’re the legacy of one of America’s foremost modern artists and a reason for the upswing in Marfa’s popularity (along with the Amazon series I Love Dick, set in Marfa and starring Kevin Bacon).
Exhibition space Ballroom Marfa.
That night I make new friends – out-of-towners who dribble back into Marfa as the week progresses – while eating an Angus burger and parmesan fries at Jett’s Grill at Hotel Paisano. This place makes the best margaritas in town, they tell me, but I can’t drink to that, as I’m driving out to Paisano Pass tonight to view the Marfa lights.
The Chihuahuan Desert falls away from the pass, dark and inscrutable; the sky is a black dome beaded with stars. It was from this elevated place – now with a purpose-built viewing platform – that a young cow hand saw a peculiar flickering of lights as he drove cattle towards Marfa in 1883. He thought they were flames from a camp fire belonging to Apache Indians but could never find evidence of a fire. In the 134 years since, settlers, ranchers, soldiers, pilots and residents have gone searching for the source of these lights and have returned empty-handed.
But they are real, for I can see them myself. They are milky-white apparitions dancing merrily on the horizon, vanishing then reappearing a short distance away, teasing me with their irregular jig. Perhaps Marfa is a ghost town after all, I think, inhabited by spirits of the most amiable kind.
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Built on the site of the first Hotel Saint George , this hotel retains historic elements such as original concrete floors, steel doors and salvaged-brick walls while offering guests modern conveniences (complimentary wi-fi, flat-panel TVs) and rooms hung with works by artists who live in or are connected to the community of Marfa. The hub includes a restaurant and bar as well as the popular Marfa Book Company, where visitors can browse locally made art, homewares and jewellery and attend exhibitions, readings and performances. Request a room with a view of Highland Street and the impressive Presidio County Courthouse standing at its far end.
Marfa Burrito (104 East Waco Street; +1 325 514 8675) looks more like a private residence than a restaurant but don’t hesitate to march on in (just like Matthew McConaughey does when he’s in town) and order one of proprietor Ramona Tejada’s delicious breakfast burritos. Choose egg with chorizo, potato or cheese or the beans and salsa.
A favourite of Marfans (and celebs such as Beyoncé), this quirky food truck (909 West San Antonio Street; +1 432 207 2090) serves falafels, wraps and burritos for lunch from Wednesday to Saturday, plus dinner and drinks on Friday at New Foodsharkland behind the truck. Go early to ensure prompt service and to secure seating inside the old bus.
Get your coffee fix at Frama while your laundry dries at the linked Tumbleweed Laundry (120 North Austin Street; +1 432 729 3335). The menu is written in Scrabble tiles and includes homemade ice-cream.
Top image: High fashion becomes high art at the Prada-store installation.
Photography credit: Christopher Zebo