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Don't mess with Marfa
Knight Ridder Newspapers
MARFA, Texas — The stars are pale, overwhelmed by a nearly full moon.
The only real light so far is in front of a home. We pull over on a rise in the dirt road, climb on top of the car and look to the right. Before long, they come. A yellowish light. Then a second. And a third.
They fade in and out. Car lights on the road to Presidio?
But then the first reappears, this time high in the sky, like it's on a pole. Another returns and waves in circles. These are not car lights.
Coyotes start their eerie crying. The house light goes out. Time to go.
Cecilia Thompson told us over coffee that morning where to go for the best look at the Marfa Lights. Raised on a ranch outside Fort Davis, Texas, she moved to Marfa in 1982 and has written a history of the town. She goes to the weekly free movie at the Marfa Public Library and lives quietly in a simple home with a Peter Hurd painting on the wall.
If you're not in the mood for a road trip, fly to Midland Odessa Regional Airport and rent a car; it's about a three-hour drive.
What to do
You can use Marfa as a base for exploring the Big Bend National Park, about an hour and a half away. Information: www.nps.gov/bibe/. Or, you can just hang out and be on "Marfa time," a phrase coined by the locals. The big sky, lack of traffic and easygoing small-town attitude slow everything down. Take a walk downtown. Check out Andy Warhol's "Last Supper" and Maria Zerres' "September Eleven" at the Ayn Foundation's galleries in the Brite Building, 109-109 N. Highland. Browse Dennis Dickinson's 2d gallery at 400 S. Highland Ave., or go to the Highland Gallery at 119 N. Highland Ave. (Hours at some galleries can be random. Drive by and check or call to see whether they're open.) Have a cup of coffee at the Brown Recluse, 111 W. San Antonio St. Go to Marfa Book Co., 105 S. Highland Ave., and have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine while you look at books or visit the gallery there. Better yet, buy a book and take it outside, sit in the sunshine and read.
In a typical Marfa-esque quirk, she also has a Ph.D. in drama from the University of Iowa.
Photographer Jill Johnson and I are in Marfa mostly because of Jill. She loves this place, with its clean desert air, tremendous bookstore, minimalist art galleries, renovated adobes. I am a little jaded. I lived in Santa Fe in the early '80s and witnessed its transformation from a beautiful, centuries-old cultural crossroads into a plywood-coyote-bedecked attraction with a chain ice-cream store on the historic Plaza.
Could it happen here? Some of the elements are in place: desert, adobe, art, great sunsets, simplicity, serenity. In fact, some of the same transplanted Easterners are here — they left Santa Fe and moved to Marfa. The price of a quaint, crumbling adobe is climbing faster than a lizard up a tree — from around $20,000 decades ago to as much as $300,000-$400,000 now.
Long way from anywhere
But Marfa is pretty remote. It's a long day's drive from Dallas-Fort Worth, and three hours from the airport in Midland. The only thing it's really on the way to is the Big Bend, a good place to go when you really need to be in the middle of big, gorgeous nowhere.
On the surface, Marfa looks like any other small Texas town. Then you find out about great New York-style pizza; an Andy Warhol hung in a giant, otherwise empty room that is randomly open for viewing; world-class sculptures standing around out in the pasture; a never-to-open Prada store sitting in the middle of the desert and planned to become a ruin (it's an art installation) ...
Thompson says, "So far, Marfa is intact. We don't have any of those tacky, craftsy stores."
Why's it called Marfa? A railroad engineer's well-educated wife named the town after a character in Dostoevski's "The Brothers Karamazov."
What are those lights, really? Nobody knows. Theories include the idea that they're reflections of gases coming up from the desert floor.
I sit next to a yucca in dawn's cold and watch the sun come up over a horizon that feels bigger than the world. The moment will never leave me.
James Dean is everywhere in Marfa. On posters, coffee mugs, signs, even light-switch plates here in the Hotel Paisano's gift shop. He stayed in the hotel, with the rest of the cast of "Giant," when the 1956 movie was filmed.
Based on Edna Ferber's epic novel of the same name, "Giant" is the tale of a Virginia girl, Leslie Lynnton, who marries a West Texan and learns to live with heat, wind, barbecued calves' heads, over-the-top wealth and the oppression of the people who lived on this land before it became Texas — Mexicans who worked the enormous ranches for pennies.
"We're the white Americans, we're the big men, we eat the beef and drink the bourbon, we don't take siestas, we don't feel the sun, the heat or the cold, the wind or the rain, we're Texans," Ferber writes. "So they drank gallons of coffee and stayed awake while the Mexican Americans quietly rested in the shade, their hats pulled down over their eyes. ... "
Ethnic differences are built into Marfa, a town of about 2,400 people that is now about 60 percent Hispanic. Early homes that belonged to people with Anglo-Saxon last names were mostly made of brick. Thompson concedes that back then there was a "bias about adobe, because Hispanics built adobe homes."
Celebrity of sorts
That doesn't seem to be who's living in many of them today. For example, Dick DeGuerin — the Houston lawyer who defended David Koresh — bought one in 1998, according to an April 2005 Marfa growth story by The New York Times that rankles some locals, who now refuse to speak to the press because of it.
Other adobe owners include Jack and Lisa Copeland, formerly of Santa Fe, who run — and live in — the Austin Street Cafe.
And then there are the adobe enclosures built for Donald Judd, the world-renowned sculptor who came to Marfa in the '70s and changed it for good. He bought up property and, with initial help from New York's Dia Art Foundation, created the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum, in 1986.
The tall, rough walls that surround the buildings are a little creepy. They obscure properties scattered around Marfa, standing in contrast to the vast country that surrounds the town.
Marfa had hit on fairly hard times by the '70s. Originally a watering stop for the steam railroad, it later became a military town but languished after World War II. Judd, his art, his money and his connections started the current revival — today the town is home to several galleries and the Marfa Book Co., which also houses a gallery.
You can see inside the walls at certain times on certain days for $10 apiece. We paid up to see the complex where Judd lived and worked, known as "the Block." The official name is Manzana de Chinati (manzana means apple in Spanish, but guide Robert Schmitt says it also can mean block. Marfa sits at the edge of the Chinati Mountains).
One of the greatest minimalist artists in the world, Judd, who died in 1994, constructed his living space in the same meticulously balanced manner as his art. If there is a building on one side of Manzana, another building of the same size stands on the other. Likewise gardens, walls — the elements may not be identical, but objects or spaces of the same size are built on either side of the complex.
As you would expect, the buildings are spare, inside and out. Most rooms, including the two-building, 10,000-volume library, include a bed, simply standing somewhere in the huge rooms.
Locals not impressed
Thompson says when Judd arrived and began his work in Marfa, "the town regarded it as a freakish thing."
They must be used to it by now, but it's hard to say — the publicity-shy Marfans seemed afraid to talk much about the Judd-related ventures.
Out at the Chinati Foundation, Judd's cement cubes look, at first, like construction plans gone bankrupt. Like the rest of Marfa, they seem pedestrian at first glance. Big, empty, cement cubes. Why?
Jill and I wander among them, walk inside them — they are some of the few Judd works available to see and touch without fees or warnings. I think about how my farming relatives back in southern New Mexico would have laughed.
You have to step back and see the works against the mountains and the desert sky to begin to understand. Like many of Marfa's attractions, they don't work for everyone. But the odd combinations in the art and in the town exert a rare kind of pull that sticks with you — if you stop, breathe and try living on Marfa time.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company