Notes From The Cactus Patch

Tall Tales and Ripping Yarns from The Great State Of Texas

“My Marfa Bubble Just Got Popped”


Fifteen years ago I ran across an article in “Texas Monthly Magazine” touting Marfa, Texas as the next “big deal” in the art universe. The author gushed on about Donald Judd, a prolific artist based in New York City who had moved his home base and all his toys to dusty little Marfa. Up until he arrived, Marfa was known as the backdrop for the 1956 movie “Giant.” After the article hit, van loads of weirdo artists from Austin showed up and claimed the town as their own. “Keep Austin Weird” was now “Keep Marfa Weird.” The mostly Hispanic population thought the gates for Hell had opened and released its hipster demons on their quiet township

For reasons I can’t recall, I became a bit obsessed with visiting this desert town and made myself a little Marfa bubble that grew larger with the passing years. I am also an artist and figured there was something life-altering in Marfa I needed to experience. The lure of the Big Bend desert kept calling. Time marches on and I forget about Judd and his art colony until a few years ago. I figured it was time to make the trip to Marfa.

My wife and I decided that after our summer vacation in Ruidoso, New Mexico, we would drive down to Marfa and scratch one item off of my bucket list. At my age, every trip becomes a bucket list item because my shelf life could expire any day now.

Five hours of driving through the Chiuauan desert landed us in Alpine Texas and the 1950s era motor hotel “The Antelope Lodge.” Retro doesn’t begin to describe this place. Very little updating has been done since the 1950s and the stucco cabins reek of the halcyon years of family road trips in large station wagons. I believe that the Cleaver’s may have stayed here. I can imagine The Beaver and Wally sitting in the courtyard eating Moon Pies and drinking RC Cola in the 100 degrees heat.

Marfa is a short hop from Alpine so the next morning we are on the road early, planning to catch breakfast in Marfa. I’m thinking about bacon, eggs, and pancakes Texas-style while Maureen is wanting fluffy biscuits and sausage gravy. Yum Yum.

Driving into town, the scenery is not what we expected or what I had found online. Dilapidated house trailers surrounded by broken down rusted cars line the highway on both sides. Not the best greeting for visitors. My bubble just sprang a leak.

Once in town, we realize that everything is closed. The art gallery is open on Saturday only, the Hotel Paisano lobby is closed until 5 PM, the Hotel St. George lounge doesn’t open until evening, the square is deserted and the only signs of life are some foreign tourists taking selfies in front of a boarded-up hardware store. My bubble is leaking air big time.

Now officially starving, we search for food, and found “Marfa Burritos,” the only restaurant open, and calling it a restaurant is a stretch.

Marfa Burrito dining area

A burrito is $7.00 and a warm can of Coke is a buck. What the hell, it’s food. The kitchen is located inside a ramshackle frame house; peeling paint and rotted siding give it that weathered west Texas appeal.

A young man and woman are ordering their burrito from the cook. They smell like incense and the girl has more armpit hair than the guy. I figure they must be from “El Cosmico,” the transcendental hipster enclave of yurts and vintage travel trailers that everyone online is raving about.

The outside dining area needed a little attention. A feral cat was munching on a half-eaten burrito that fell from an overflowing trash bin, and ants and flies are everywhere. I’m thinking Marfa doesn’t have a health inspector.

After breakfast, we decide to visit the Prada exhibit, which the Marfa website says is located just outside of town. Some years ago, two German artists constructed a small building full of Prada handbags and shoes in the middle of the desert, and it became the main tourist attraction for Presidio County. The other attraction is the Marfa Lights; twinkling orbs that dance around in the mountains east of town. The locals claim the lights are Aliens or maybe disgruntled Indian spirits. Some of the older folks believe they are the ghost of James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizebeth Taylor, the long-departed stars of the Giant movie.

We drive for twenty-minuets and no Prada. We check Google maps and find it is another half-hour’s drive to Prada. To hell with that, so we turn around and motor back to Marfa. My fifteen-year-old bubble just popped. We decide to return to Alpine, pack our gear, and head for home. No more bubbles for me.

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11 thoughts on ““My Marfa Bubble Just Got Popped”

  1. coachtom12 on said:

    Yep it is not the town it used to be. Should have gone to Ft Davis.

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  2. Giant was my dad’s favorite movie so it became kind of a neat movie to me. Liz was at her most beautiful and James Dean his coolest — and Dad had worked on a cattle ranch in Texas when he was young (I think for about ten minutes maybe). Dad loved Texas, but took my mother down there during one of those storms. I think he was working for Ford Motor then. Their suitcases were floating around the hotel room in a foot of water when she woke up and she said it was all “brown there.” Bay City, Texas he says it was. I think he had to take Mom home, but I really like Texas a lot. A place I think of going in our winter. Liked Galveston and Corpus and San Antonio and stuff… But you know, not sure I’d like Marfa much! (That was in Texas, right, not New Mexico?) Well, anyway, funny piece again, but don’t think I’ll visit.

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  3. I’ve eaten at the same burrito place. Never again. What a shame.

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  4. My wife and I made a cross-country trip a few years back. It was a fun trip, actually, with a few unusual but interesting tidbits along the way. You’ll find the Old Brite Ranch outside of Marfa. There was a hell of a fight there in 1917 as Mexican bandits assaulted the ranch and ran into Luke Brite who ruined their day. And it sort of ruffled the feathers of Texans living in the area at the time. We traveled from Fort Stockton to Fort Davis and Alpine.

    We really enjoyed our visit to Fort Davis and Alpine, less so at Fort Stockton. Interesting histories at all three locations, though. At Fort Stockton, we were sort of kidnapped by a Comanche Squaw who worked at the fort museum. We began to realize she was a few bubbles off plumb when we shifted from “bunk rooms and commissaries” to the ghosts of Comanche warriors that frequent (of course) Comanche Springs. Whether the ghost stories were true I can’t say. We never saw one. Well, maybe we needed 3-D glasses.

    You won’t find “Hollywood” type forts in Texas. No log walls … on account of the fact that lumber was hard to get, so the forts weren’t really fortified. The good news was that you could see trouble a’coming. The old San Antonio-El Paso wagon road passes by Fort Davis. Fort Davis has a fighting trench dug around the military buildings. Then, about 500 or so yards behind Fort Davis is a rather large hill. I tried to understand the thinking that went into the placement of Fort Davis. From the top of that hill, mean-spirited folks could make the soldiers down below scurry for cover. It must have been a lieutenant who made that decision.

    Sorry to hear your bubble busted about Marfa. I didn’t feel drawn to that place because I have no artistic talents – at all. My best drawing was of stick figures running in all directions from a stick figure bear in the center of the drawing pad. My Dad suggested I find another interest. Anyway, Presidio County had a few of their lawmen killed in the line of duty back in the day, so I suppose there was a time before the artist’s colony when Marfa was a great place for excitement — and might explain, too, why so few people remained there.

    Thanks for another great story. You’ve got a heck of a talent for telling stories.

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    • Thanks for the history Mustang. The Comanches ruled Texas from 1800 to 1900 and no one could defeat them. Fort Davis is a great place and I wish we could have spent more time there instead of Marfa. Glad you got to take a road trip in my home state. I did live in Cinci for a year doing a project at Fairfield Mall, this was back in the early 90s. Nice town.

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      • I don’t live in Cincinnati, Phil. I’ve mostly lived in TX and FL since I retired from the USMC in 1992. Presently living in the Pensacola area. I only mentioned Cincinnati the other day because my friend who does live there assures me that all drivers there should be shot. 🙂

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      • Ooops, sorry man, my mistake. I agree, the drivers in Texas are as bad, but you have lived here so you know. Driving from San Antonio to Corpus on Saturday, the speed limit on 281 was 75, which I was driving. Everyone else was hitting 90 plus. Wow, scared the liver out of me. It’s a scary thought that young drivers are going 90 and texting at the same time.

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  5. Marfa…I vaguely remember something about that place. I do recall the chatter about it around 2006. I had to see weird Austin on a daily basis so, traveling to the desert to see more weird was not on my radar. I spent more time heading to Houston, Galveston or Spring (Old Town Spring is really cool…or was…it’s been a decade).

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  6. Gilmer Gal on said:

    Well, you shot me down and I appreciate it! I’ve always thought Marfa would be a great place to spend a couple of days, but now I see I need to take that little village off my list. Thanks for the heads up!

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    • Sorry about that, just being honest. I can never get those 2 wasted days back. Fort Davis is a better place if you feel that you must see the Big Bend area. Maureen and I are kinda done with desert Texas.

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