A year-end drive, planned very last minute to stave off post-holiday gloom, took us to the Hill Country in the central part of the state, and then farther west to the empty expanses of West Texas.
Our ultimate target was Marfa, a small town that defies easy description. Other writers have used words like hipster, artsy, curated, minimalist, fake, expensive, cool, and overrated. Every one of these adjectives can apply, but Marfa is a place you have to feel, not just see or try to put into words, and it takes more than dropping in for an afternoon to do it. On the surface, Marfa could be small-town anywhere – in prairie Iowa or rural Cuba. Half-century old cars and faded pickup trucks sit in small patches of scorched grass, vintage Airstreams glint among the sepia tones of the vegetation, and low-slung houses with chipped-paint fences hide courtyards and more from clueless passersby. This is what you see, and are meant to see, before (or if) you have your cultural epiphany.
But shimmering elusively in the plainspoken, down-home facades and pastoral landscapes are the half-hidden intellectualism, the artsy aesthetic, the foodie vibe, and (if you are the cynical type) the pretension that a visitor has heard is there but has to slowly discern. Inside some of those modest-looking dwellings live wealthy L.A. movers and shakers, up-and-coming or already famous artists, and well-heeled couples both young and old who seem to have been beamed in from Brooklyn or Seattle. There are infinity-edge pools hiding in there, and stainless steel kitchens, Eames chairs, and alpaca throws. We know this later, when we flip through books in the shops, but what we see are dusty streets with kitschy awnings and rusty screen doors.
On our first pass through town, we do not recognize a single gallery space on the two main streets; the buildings are nondescript and any signage or advertisement nonexistent. When our hotel receptionist points to the map and tells us where things are, I keep shaking my head, thinking I must have the map upside down or am otherwise disoriented. We went down that street, I say, there was nothing there! I think J and I are both thinking we drove 600 miles for nothing.
But no, a second pass reveals discreet signs, and simple iron doors open to reveal rooms containing, for example, three huge Andy Warhol paintings, or tablesful of art glass, or a “September Eleven” installation. Even our hotel surprises us: this unadorned, rectangular carton right off the railroad tracks shelters a hopping, see-and-be-seen bar, highbrow local bookstore, and Architectural Digest-worthy room décor.
Some of the trailers in town (and more than a few rentable teepees) are part of an ironic-chic camping complex. A plainly unattractive bluish-gray building contains just about the best pizza I’ve ever waited an hour and a half to get. Another old trailer dishes out “Marfalafel” and other Mediterranean goodies for visitors like Beyoncé, you, and me, and it takes us well over a day to even locate another popular restaurant that is tucked up against a random house with a teeny tiny sign.
We walk through a field filled with a kilometer-long string of concrete … things. Apparently some visitors mistake these for unused highway barriers. The minimalist blocks are the work of the Marfa art scene’s founding father, Donald Judd. Like the town itself, the sculptural art at first inspires some eye-rolling and disappointment, but after a slow walk from one end to the other, with the morning sun catching the blunt gray edges and illuminating the surrounding prairie grasses, the piece begins to appeal. We pose with our senior dog in the openings; this would have made a much edgier Christmas card!
It’s hard to tell if the locals want us there or not. It’s clear that the burgeoning art scene has kept the town alive; many other small settlements we pass through out here in the desert look one more economic dip away from extinction. But we feel the ambivalence of both the hip crowd and the locals. Many places are only open on the weekend, shops close when they feel like it even then, service is sluggish, and a shrug might be the best answer you get to any question.
It sounds a bit unlikable, doesn’t it, or at least difficult to fully appreciate? Why does anyone drive hours and hours (and you have to) to see this place whose most famous work of art, the fake Prada store, is another 36 miles outside of town? Whose other claim to fame is a set of mysterious lights that bob out on the desert at night? Whose essence can only be guessed at or seen in a book?
I can tell you why we did it – because it’s there! – but I can’t fully explain why I loved it. I need to go back and spend more than a day and a half browsing the galleries around town, to get a second shot at the Marfa Lights which failed to show up for us, to take the full six-hour Chinati Foundation tour, to try the Marfalafel since the food truck guys decided to close right when I walked up, and to try to more fully grasp the unlikely appeal of this tumbledown town.
I can tell you that after the first few hours, I thought Marfa was the dumbest destination ever, nothing but a sad little place, or maybe a joke on all of us. That after eight hours, a little of the mystery had gotten under my skin. That after a day, I was all in – hook, line, and sinker. I can also tell you my husband did not get past stage 1.5 of that thought evolution; he thought it was sort of interesting and enjoyed watching my gradual enthrallment, but I’m guessing my next trip will be solo!