Marfa and Valentine, Texas
West Texas, a landscape straight out of No Country for Old Men. 60 miles or less from Mexico and aside from the beauty of the desert, a never ending sky and the odd nodding donkey (oil well, not the animal who carried Mary) there is not a lot here. Until you reach Marfa, a town famous for two things – art and lights.
To be fair to the other small towns nearby, ‘Marfa’ encompasses an area stretching across Alpine, Valentine and Marathon in the Chihuahuan Desert. It has been on my radar of places to visit for a few years now having spotted the Prada Boutique in a photograph somewhere. This single art installation is possibly the one most responsible for putting Marfa on the mainstream map. And it’s not even in Marfa, it’s in Valentine to the west. A bizarre Prada store full of Italian shoes and handbags which there is no way into. I wonder how many selfie takers who’ve stood outside ponder why an exclusive and expensive brand like this has a shop no one can ever enter, in the middle of an economically poor desert. Window shopping only. Not that I can imagine many Texans giving a damn, high heels are not much use out here. The installation has been around since 2005, and been looted and restocked at least once. A car is the only way to get to it, although I suspect this is the first time someone has visited in a UK registered classic 911, not that we are travelling in some overly fancy way – people like Beyoncé arrive by private jet.
Outdoor art is everywhere, and that’s a good thing if you are travelling mid-week as we did because Marfa is a weekend town. Hit the Judd Foundation or La Fundación Chinati on the wrong day and it will be like trying to buy a Prada bag here. Same goes for bars, food and shops.
With that in mind, if you are in Marfa on a Tuesday sometime and stuck for what to do, you’ve now happened upon your saviour.
A mid-week guide to Marfa, Texas
Where to stay
Where to eat
Pulling up outside a dive bar called the Lost Horse Salon, taking a brief peek inside I decided it was too authentic a dive bar for us, at least for eating as I’d happily drink and play pool here.
We’d driven past a place called the Capri earlier that was open, it didn’t look all that from the road but time was ticking on, options limited and stomachs rumbling. We drove into what looked like a parking area but wasn’t only to be told by someone who presumably worked there that we could leave the Porsche there anyway, right outside the entrance. We headed in and were reminded why you should never judge a book by the cover. It’s proper Condé Nast meets cowboy (turns out it actually is featured in Condé Nast!).
A 50 gram ribeye steak (to share of course), green salad, margaritas, beers, ice cream served in a big wooden fruit bowl. Simple steak and salad yet one of the best meals I have eaten in my life.
What to see
You can’t miss it, wherever you go there is something an artist has created. Some of it needs a bit of seeking out, and others are right in your face. While eating in the Capri we got talking to a couple of art experts involved with the Judd and Chinati Foundations, being out of our depth for an intellectual debate on Rothko’s maroon rectangles we told them about the installation we’d enjoyed most, Giant Marfa. I’m glad we mentioned this as we got the full background on this colourful plywood structure depicting a movie set from our new friends.
It turns out there is an old movie called ‘Giant’ that starred James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, and that movie was shot in Marfa, some of it on the same spot as this colourful piece.
They are huge, billboard type structures that I’m sure most people simply drive by, but if you stop, get out the car and walk over, braving the oversized ants that try to climb your legs if you stand in one spot too long, you get the full experience. Hidden inside some plastic rocks are solar powered speakers playing county music – you can’t hear it from the road so was worth risking insect bites.
There is some debate around what the Marfa Ghost Lights are, and mentioning them while there did provoke the theory of some physics students from the university of Texas, that this mysterious spectacle is just car lights. Maybe what they were looking at were headlamps but there is no way what we saw could possibly be this. I can’t imagine there was a lot of traffic when the lights were first reported in the 1800s.
Alternative theory surrounding them is atmospheric phenomena. A mirage caused by sharp temperature gradients between warm and cold air layers. Another theory that it’s some sort of underground light caused by teutonic plates. We witnessed the sky lighting up as we drove in from the west (the official Marfa Lights viewing area is 10 miles east of Marfa), huge bright flashes filling large chunks of night sky appearing both to the North and South of our field of vision around the Mitchell Flats. Neither of us have ever seen anything like it.
The second night we drove out to a different location, the Marfa Lights Viewing Area and sat for an hour. What we saw here was less spectacular but still very interesting, something more lightening like? Smaller in scale. The two experiences were very different. Possibly not even the same thing.
A military airfield and base was here for many years. It seems strange that there is not more evidence around the Marfa lights, and that it is quick to be dismissed as automobiles or camp fires on nearby ranches given the US Airforce was so close? Is there something more to it? Could it be paranormal or extraterrestrial activity? It remains unexplained, nobody has a definitive answer.