Welcome back to the fifth post in a long series of articles on the Southwest of the US. After leaving behind the beautiful Big Bend National Park and Terlingua, Texas we headed north towards New Mexico but before getting there we had a few stops along the way. Our first stop was the West Texas prairie town of Marfa. I first heard of Marfa when it was featured on 60 minutes in 2013, the piece by Morley Safer was titled “Marfa, Texas The Capitol of Quirkiness!” That segment was always in the back my mind as we were planning this sojourn to the Southwest.
As we approached Marfa from the east, we came upon a newish outdoor wayside building facing the southwest. This is the viewing station for the famous Marfa Lights. On clear, dark nights these lights appear, first as a flickering light then separate and roam over the horizon. To be clear, we didn’t see the lights because we visited Marfa for about five hours during the day, these observations are taken from first hand accounts from those who’ve seen the Marfa Lights. It is said that residents and visitors to this area have been seeing these lights for well over 100 years and there is no clear scientific explanation for their appearance. Some people call them ghost lights or from the paranormal, others say the lights are reflections of auto headlights from cars traveling from Marfa to Presidio along Highway 67. At any rate they are real, attract the curious, and add to the interesting story of Marfa.
But I digress; as we rolled into town towing our trailer, we looked for a place to park with our rig. There were lots of choices as the streets are wide and except for around the Presidio County Courthouse, very plentiful.
We chose to park by the Marfa Visitors Center, a good choice as it allowed us to walk to most areas in town.
At the Visitors Center, we met the Director, Minerva Lopez who not only provided lots of written information but also showed us around the Visitors Center housed in the old USO building that served soldiers stationed at Camp Marfa, later Fort Russell. During WWII, the Marfa Army Airfield was the training site for thousands of pilots, hence a large USO presence.
Before I proceed, allow me to share some history of Marfa. The town was established in 1883 as a water station and freight headquarters for the railroad. By the way, the railroad still runs through Marfa, evidenced by my getting yelled at to get off the tracks by a railroad worker. Sorry sir, I was only trying to take some photos and wasn’t paying attention! Thank goodness my traveling partner was and spirited me off the tracks before something bad happened. By the way, this rail line carries the Sunset Limited passenger train between New Orleans and Los Angeles but doesn’t stop in Marfa, there might be a country song in there someplace!
Back to my story! Marfa is said to have gotten its name from a character in Jules Verne novel Michael Strogoff. Marfa was made the county seat of Presidio County in 1885 thus providing stability to the community. In addition, Marfa is host to a sector of the US Border Patrol, it’s a center for area agriculture, and has a tourism industry related to modern art. You see, in the early 1970’s Donald Judd, an established contemporary artist and critic from New York, came to Marfa, liked what he saw and began to purchase property including some of the buildings on the decommissioned Fort Russell. In 1977, Judd founded the Judd and Chinati Foundations as a way to preserve and present large-scale contemporary art to the public. Judd’s presence and art attracted other modern artists and artisans to Marfa. They came, created studios and opened galleries. We visited a few as we walked around town, like this exhibit at the Marfa Ballroom.
Here’s an example of one of the many repurposed galleries around town.
We did make a visit to the Chinati Foundation on the edge of Marfa to see some of Donald Judd’s work. Now I can’t say I understand his installation of 15 Untitled Works in Concrete that he created between 1980 and 1984 but you decide. Maybe there is something I don’t see or get!
After our interesting and enlightening chat with Ms. Lopez, we walked toward “downtown” Marfa. I should say that the buildings and common areas in Marfa are well kept even though there are some vacant buildings. After some lunch, we stopped by the refurbished and elegant Hotel Paisano. Here we checked out the artwork and the posters from a couple of movies that were filmed in Marfa. The most well known is the Giant that started Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Sal Mineo, Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper. Since the weather was pretty chilly, we found the Hotel’s fountain looking like an ice sculpture!
Just down the street from the Hotel is the Presidio County Courthouse. Ms. Lopez told us that the views of the town and countryside were the best from the rotunda of the Courthouse. After entering the building, we climbed the three flights to find the door to the rotunda closed and locked. Not to be deterred, I found someone in a nearby office who knew where the key was and unlocked the door for us (they kept it closed because the rotunda was unheated). The view was great as we could see not only almost all the town but much of the surrounding flat countryside.
After our fun and interesting visit to Marfa, we headed out of town. But wait! We weren’t done with Marfa just yet. A few miles north of Valentine, Texas is the Prada Marfa, a semi-permanent sculpture created by two European artists with the blessings of the Prada company. It’s out in the middle of the desert, along Highway 90 and shocks just about anyone who drives past it. Who would guess that you’d find Prada shoes and handbags in West Texas? It’s so weird that it’s interesting! Again, you be the judge.
Even though we were only in Marfa for a few hours, it’s place we won’t soon forget.
Next up something more traditional, Ft. Davis National Historic Site.
Until next week, travel safe,