chookooloonks wild west road trip/film friday: marfa


Our first full day in west Texas, we decided to take the scenic drive into Marfa.  I mentioned before that I had no idea what to expect:  while I knew Marfa had the reputation of being an artists' town, every image I had looked up on the internet communicated that it was just a little backwater village, with not much more than a main street.  

"I honestly think it's one of those places that if we blink, we'll miss it on the highway," I said to Marcus. 

"Don't worry," he replied.  "We'll take the scenic route.  I mean, we have no place to be, right?  We'll meander, and take it all in our own sweet time." 

Sounded like a great plan.  So I grabbed my camera, and off we went.* 


The roads leading into and around Marfa pretty much look exactly like this:  in perfect condition, completely deserted.  We would travel for miles without seeing any cars, and when we did, we had to fight the urge to wave (we didn't always succeed).  The area was so beautiful, and so serene, which made arriving at this, 45 minutes later ... 


... completely surreal.   Because, you know, luxury, designer, Italian handbags are pretty much the opposite of what you expect to see in the middle of the west Texas desert.

(An aside/explanation:  The Prada Marfa art installation is located about 30 miles outside of Marfa, and looks and is branded exactly like any Prada store you'd find in Milan or New York City.  It was designed and built in 2005 by artists Elmgreen & Dragset, and was created -- with Prada's permission -- to be a commentary on "the unchecked growth of luxury brands, the temporal relevance of fashion, retail as tourism and a culture that is devoted to buying and selling."  The shoes and handbags inside are real Prada products, but you can't actually enter the "store" -- it's just considered sculpture in the middle of the desert.

In my opinion, it's completely odd, and completely brilliant. )

We stayed at the Prada Marfa for about 20 minutes while Marcus patiently indulged my photographing it from all angles.  Then finally, we got back into the car and headed into Marfa proper. 



We drove into main street (which, let's face it, isn't hard to find, since there are no traffic lights and just one 4-way stop) and parked the car.

Marcus and I looked at each other. 

"We're here," he said. 

"What the hell do we do now?" I wondered. 

"I dunno.  Get out of the car first, I guess." 

We got out of the car and locked the doors (although honestly, I'm not sure why).  "Well ..."  I said slowly, "it's just about lunch time.  My friend Farrah said we should definitely have lunch at the Food Shark once we get here, and I saw that we passed it on the way in.  Let's go there, and then we'll figure out what to do." 


The Food Shark offers Mexican Coke, which every soda-drinker knows is far superior to American Coke.  That's real sugar, baby .

The Food Shark offers Mexican Coke, which every soda-drinker knows is far superior to American Coke.  That's real sugar, baby.

We ordered our food and sat down at one of the community tables.  Twenty minutes later, Marcus' name was called, and he returned with baskets of some of the freshest food we've eaten in a long while.  Sitting outside in the surprisingly cool air, we leisurely enjoyed our meal. 

Finally, I said, "Um, we still haven't figured out what we're going to do next." 

Before Marcus could answer, I heard a small laugh.  I looked to see a woman with twinkly eyes and bright red hair smiling at me. 

"Y'all from outta town?" 

I smiled back.  "Yes." 

"You know, this town has tons of tourists every weekend, and I can never figure out what the heck they come here for.  It's just a small Texas town!" 

I laughed.  "Are you local?" 

"Yes," she said.  Her husband joined us at the table. 

"Okay," I said.  "Well, what would you do if you were visiting this town for the first time?" 

And thus began one of several incredibly warm conversations we had with locals while we were there.  I'm embarrassed to say that I've forgotten her name, but her husband introduced himself to us as "Cowboy Jimmy, Teller of Tall Tales," and charmed us immediately.  The told us to visit the galleries, and the Chinati Foundation and the Marfa Lights ("Oh, they're definitely real," they insisted.)  They told us they'd only been married for 3 years, and they had a granddaughter with hair exactly like mine.  And then they waxed poetic about Big Bend National Park.

"I'm so glad to hear you guys are going out there."

"Yeah, we're looking forward to it.  But I hear there are mountain lions." 

"Yup, definitely.  In fact," Cowboy Jimmy looked at his wife, "wasn't there a story just the other day about a mountain lion attacking a little girl?" 

"Jeez." I swallowed hard, watching his wife nod in agreement.  "You know, you two aren't making me feel very good about our decision to go out there." 

"Oh, honey, you don't have anything to worry about."  Cowboy Jimmy regarded me gravely.  "See, it's a scientific fact:  mountain lions only eat white meat.  Now, your husband over there" --  here, he nodded at Marcus -- "he should be worried."

We stared at him as he maintained his solemn expression, and then I burst out laughing when he winked at me, and his wife smacked him on his arm.  

And that was when I decided that I would love Cowboy Jimmy and his beloved until the day I die. 



Finally we finished our meals and said goodbye to our new friends ("Y'all have a good time!"), and decided to wander the street a bit just to see what we might find before looking for some of the sites that were suggested to us.  We were about to walk past one small, nondescript gallery, when we saw this:


"Hold up," I said, looking disbelievingly at Marcus.  "Andy Warhol?  Out here?"

"Wanna go take a look?" Marcus smiled, and tried the door.  It was open.

And I'll be damned if it wasn't really the Andy Warhol -- this tiny space had three huge original paintings and other sketches by the great pop artist.  Here we were, standing in the middle of a tiny town in west Texas, staring at million-dollar paintings without having to pay any membership or entrance fees.  Incredible.

Once we had our fill of Warhol, we kept wandering, and ran into El Paisano Hotel, where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean stayed when they were filming the movie Giant ... 


... and where Marcus bought himself a straw cowboy hat, to keep the sun off (and ostensibly bat away the mountain lions) when we visited Big Bend National Park the following day.

Finally, headed over to visit the Donald Judd exhibits.  Donald Judd was a minimalist artist who is apparently responsible for making Marfa the art centre it is today:  he fell in love with the landscape and bought much of the land in the area, on which he created massive sculptures, which the Chinati Foundation maintains today.

For example, he took two World War II armory buildings and built a large exhibit, "100 Works in Mill Aluminum," featuring stunning milled aluminum boxes that catch and bend and contort the light beautifully (and which, naturally, I was prohibited from photographing from the interior):


... as well as his work, "15 Untitled Works in Concrete" that span 1.5 miles of the desert that I was allowed to photograph, but which I totally do not get:


... ah well.  I like art, but I'm clearly not as profound as necessary to understand a lot of it.

At this point, the sun was beginning to get blistering, so it was time to find a watering hole.  The guy who sold Marcus his hat had suggested Planet Marfa, a local wine and beer garden.  We wandered over and relaxed with a beer (Marcus) and a glass of wine (me), and happily discovered that there was wifi (there's not a lot of connectivity in the desert).  As I was checking my email, I noticed a comment on this post that caught my attention.  It was from someone named "Dan Dunlap":

"I hope you found Marfa as interesting as you imagined. It really helps to get below the surface. -The Mayor"

The Mayor?! 

A quick Google search confirmed that yes, indeed, the mayor of Marfa is Dan Dunlap, and it appeared he had left a comment on my little blog -- right when I was relaxing in his fair city, after having an amazing day.  At that point, I was completely sold.


And see?  That's the thing I learned about Marfa -- as Mayor Dunlap says, you definitely have to look beneath the surface.  It appears to be a tiny, forgotten town in the middle of nowhere, and yet, at every turn, there were happy surprises:  surreal art, warm locals, great little spaces.  And the surprises continued:  we discovered the amazing Cochineal restaurant for dinner, where we had a wonderful meal, and then ... we were off to discover the mysterious Marfa lights.

But that, my darlings, is a post for next week.  

In the meantime, have a fantastic weekend, friends.

Song:  Desperado by the Eagles.  No lie, this song was playing while we were eating at the Food Shark.  I could not have picked a better song for sitting there in this town if I'd tried. 


*  Because I knew that the town had sort of a throwback-to-the-old-west sort of vibe (or so I gathered from the internet before our trip), I made the decision that once we got there, I would take my photos with my old Nikon FE film camera instead of my digital, in an attempt to capture its feel.  The images in this post are those photos -- and honestly, they look exactly how it felt, if I do say so myself.