The drive from San Antonio to Marfa is full of snaky roads and rock fall warnings. Taking I-10 through the hill country toward West Texas, the landscape is marked by rampart and cacti; the radio station options go from a few dozen to two. My husband and I listened to horse raising commentary interspersed with a sort of country music free-styling session. Our dog sat in the backseat, at first upright and ears perky, then alert and curious, and finally slouching and timid. Erm … where are you taking me?
The winds hit as I heard the hook “if you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the van,” and things got Hunter S. Thompson weird from there (sans mind-altering support). We stopped at just about every gas station we could find as we made our way further west. If driving to West Texas, remember that bathrooms are an opportunity to seize, not a guarantee.
As the roads twisted higher and the mountains surfaced along the horizon, we noticed fewer road signs and more border control vehicles. Marathon, TX was is a ghost town on the Sunday we drove through, but we were able to find gas and grab a picture from the base of a hill before setting sights on Alpine, home to Sul Ross State University. The town, at about 6K, hosts a few food trucks and a coffee shop with a laundromat attached and a scrabble board ordering menu. Dogs were welcome everywhere, it seemed, and “everywhere” could be exhausted in a few hours with enough motivation and mobility. We walked and soaked in the beauty of the mountains in the distance, and we looked for people, figuring they must be hiding somewhere. We walked.
About twenty minutes away (if you drive hella fast), Marfa waited in all her divine dissimilarity.
Population of approximately 2K, Marfa was once home solely to ranchers but now houses artsy folk from Los Angeles and New York, thanks to the foresight of minimalism without motion. To find art in life and not spend endless conversations debating art philosophies and trying to navigate the ever elusive art circles, Donald Judd moved to Marfa in the seventies thanks to a fellowship that allowed him to expose the small city’s heartbeat with the construction of markers that shone light on the contrast that occurs in life.
Walking around Marfa felt like a large-scale treasure hunt. Unlike geocaching, I didn’t have to move rocks or climb mountains to find my treasures, however. Instead, I needed only pay attention. The barren landscape was dotted with brilliant, clean, minimalist art that seemed to both complement and conflict with the city that it housed. While venturing to Marfa restaurants and bars on a Sunday and finding only two of the seven Yelp suggestions to be open, Chris and I wound up at the one open bar.
This bar could have easily been in a small Ohio town or, really, any small town, but instead of a surly or worn-looking bar tender - someone whose life choices, situations, and work history have been etched into her face, this bar, replete with sticky floors and two-three patrons who looked as though they were there daily, was tended by a woman whose cherubic features and angular style suggested adopted, rather than inherent, struggle. She was clean and smooth skinned and unworn.
After chatting with some of the locals, who were descendants of locals, I came to understand that there is a generations-deep feud between Marfa and Alpine that dates back to ranchers who used to own all of the land. I also came to understand that guests in Marfa are welcome and hospitality is almost a competitive sport. After exploring the outside bar area, which contained a street light and a swing above the gravel floor littered with American Spirit butts, we walked in the cool desert air toward Hotel Paisano, the site of the Elizabeth Taylor Movie, Giant. On the way, we passed a gas station (food!) and a few other small shops and stores that were open only Thursday through Saturday. We ended up eating dinner at the hotel, which was rather good. Though I don’t recommend the fish tacos, everything else was divine.
The thing I noticed most about Marfa was a sort of pervasive peace. Everyone we spoke to was kind in an unrushed way. I caught myself having conversations and feeling an ephemeral tug of the chin downward, as though I had a text to answer or an email to send. What an odd and strung-out sort of feeling. Though I admittedly spent the first day taking a shit ton of pictures and posting them to Instagram, the second day was about accepting that quiet wholeheartedly.
Marfa reminded me how much I crave such time. To be with one’s self and one’s loved ones in silence is a gift rarely allowed in our transparency-above-all age. As though planted, a Marfa rainbow greeted us at an art school as we walked around, bellies finally full, noticing the number of cars (mostly trucks, actually) we saw could all fit in a doughnut shop parking lot with spaces to spare. The quietude was mesmerizing and important to me.
When we went to the lookout to see the famous Marfa Lights, we weren't disappointed to see only a few car headlights coming up the road. Each set contained promise, then the emotional equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders. Not indifference exactly, something nearer understanding. We stared out at the mountains, until we began to yawn. A local later told us that you don't always get to see them, and that he thinks they're staged. Perhaps. Some people beg to differ. To us, it didn't matter.
“Marfa is the place people go to disappear,” a friend said before our trip. I only wish I could’ve kept the invisibility cloak on a bit longer. I turned 37 in Marfa, and I am going to remember the city's influence, artistic and inherent. I will attempt to carry some semblance of its odd peace and simplicity with me this year.
Creativity prompt: Go somewhere quiet. No coffee, no food, no books, no computer. Just bring a pen and paper. Write.