When you start driving west from Austin, you can expect about six or seven hours of this. Except flatter. Those two hills in the background might make you think there’s something going on out there. But don’t be fooled. There’s not.
Driving a Uhaul, with only the radio for entertainment, you endure hours and hours with no reception at all except conservative talk or conjunto music. This leaves a lot of time to be with your own mind.
Just before I left Austin, my friend Seth gave me a documentary about the artist Anselm Kiefer called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow. In it, Kiefer says (paraphrasing Heideggger), “It is only when one is bored, that one’s consciousness settles, reluctantly or even fearfully, on oneself and the nature of one’s own existence.”
I pondered my existence for about two hours. Then I sang every show tune I know. Then I picked up the signal for Marfa Public Radio and Chuck Berry sang me into town.
The first thing you see when you roll up on U.S. Route 67 is the Marfa “Mystery Lights” Viewing Center.
The lights are seen at all times of year, at all times of night, and are said to be white, orange, yellow, red, green, or blue. They supposedly hover in place, move slowly across the sky, and dart off in random directions. In October 1989, one of my favorite television shows, Unsolved Mysteries, even did a segment on them. “Scientists” tell us that the lights are just reflections from headlights and atmospheric phenomena. Maybe so, but I prefer to get my information from a man with a trench coat and a velvety baritone.
Marfa was established in the late 1880s as a railroad water station and was an Air Force training site for pilots in World War II. After that, the town faded into obscurity until the 1970s, when a big shot New York artist named Donald Judd moved there and started getting all artsy on its ass. From what I can tell from his Wikipedia page and a Google images search, he really liked squares and boxes.
I mean, the guy practically INVENTED the standing CD tower. Sadly, Judd passed away in 1994, but his namesake Judd Foundation and the Chinati Foundation are still in Marfa continuing his legacy. Along with a whole bunch of other artists and galleries.
One of the most famous is about 40 miles northwest, on a desolate stretch of U.S. Route 90. In 2005, artists Elmgreen and Dragset erected Prada Marfa. You can’t go inside, but you can see real merchandise through the store window. It’s pretty freakin’ surreal.
When you’re not looking at all the fancy art and shit, you will probably eat at Food Shark. They have a truck and a “day cafeteria.” The food was pretty good and the decor was sufficiently hip. If you’re into that kind of thing. Which I find that I am. Occasionally.
Just across the street from the hipster cafeteria is the Hotel Paisano, where most of the cast and crew of the 1956 film Giant stayed during production. Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean stayed in rented homes nearby, but a young up-and-comer named Dennis Hopper stayed at the hotel. I heard somewhere that when filming started, Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson made a bet to see who could get James Dean into bed first. Rock Hudson won.
As I was walking past the Marfa Public Radio storefront, a guy named Willie opened the door and invited me in to take pictures. He said that people are always coming in to take pictures there and he thought I might like to as well. He was right.
Other things I noticed around town… They like pink government buildings:
They also enjoy old-timey trucks:
But the thing that struck me most during my time in Marfa was just how much everything looks like art when you start seeing it that way.