In the corner of a 100-year-old adobe building, currently a bar called Padre’s, is an eye-patched cowboy – a bona fide, rare breed cowhand – teaching a tatted up German rocker how to make a lasso. “That right there is what makes Marfa like no other place on earth,” says an observer from Austin. It’s an unlikely cultural crossroads 200 miles from El Paso, Texas, in the middle of the desert, blending the affable presence of ranchers and farmers, hippies and hipsters, artists and foodies.
Marfa has been described as the “Capital of Quirkiness,” “Lone Star Bohemia” and “Wild West Utopia.” It’s a town of 2,000 that seems it should’ve been extinct by now, given that it began in 1883 with the singular purpose of being a railroad water stop. But art brought new life and a new wave of inhabitants to this single traffic light town. One figure in particular, minimalist artist Donald Judd, is credited with putting it on the map.
Judd went to Marfa in the early ’70s to escape New York in search of simplicity and an inspiring landscape. He bought an old military base and thousands of acres of land, and filled them with his own art and the works of others. He died in 1994, but his legacy lives on as the Chinati Foundation oversees the museum, his works and other artistic endeavors around town.
Although it is the backbone to what Marfa is today, Chinati is just part of the town’s eclectic experience and artistic presence. Several miles down Highway 90 stands the Prada Marfa installation – a fake store in the desert that is an unlikely Texas sculpture of amusement and ambivalence. The James Beard-nominated restaurant – Maiya’s – is packed and bustling, while outside, others are heading down the dusty road to see the Marfa Lights that mysteriously appear in the night sky. Here you can stay in a vintage trailer or a tepee at El Cosmico or follow the blowing tumbleweeds to where No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were filmed nearby.
You never know what you’ll find: a poetry reading, gallery show or performance by a well-known indie band. Part of the beauty of what Marfa is today, is because it just settled naturally – and that happenstance element is still fully present. Food joints and shops have drifting hours. There are times the town feels half dead and other moments when you find something like the Food Shark Museum of Electronic Wonders & Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour, whose the name should say enough.
Surrounded by a wide-open landscape of blue sky, golden grass and dusty mountains, Marfa is rebellious, but friendly – in 24 hours you’re likely to bump into the same faces a handful of times. As we did, you’ll hang out with interesting people you’ll likely never see again: a lawyer from New York driving across the country to move to San Francisco, the owner of a well-known liquor brand and his wife, a musician stopping in between tours.
Marfa’s independent spirit is, in many ways, common ground for both the cowboys and the culturati. Here they come to be on the fringe, find an artistic haven, look for the edges of our bustling society or cherish the land. What Judd sought with his arrival – a purity of art and a need for rejuvenation – is for others to continue.
You’ll need to explore and discover it for yourself, but click here for a few Marfa highlights.