Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Detours Can Lead to Miracles & Art (Marfa, TX)


The typical reaction to a detour is frustration; the trip will take longer, the road may be rough, probably miss certain scenery.  But I discovered an intentional detour can offer the real boon of a road trip.  Even in daily life in the city, as was said by Robert Frost ‘the road less traveled made all the difference.’  Pushing through habits, routines, and expectations offers for the rebirthing Boomer, the excitement of discovery.  A side trip to the mysterious town of Marfa, TX had all of my favorite elements; desert, art, classic hotels, and hot springs.  Approaching from the east on I-80, the setting sun against the mountains in the distant horizon beckoned me to the unknown.  

No one here but us sagebrushes
The state highway, a straight ribbon of asphalt traveled only by jumbo, six wheel pick-ups and the occasional short semi, stretched to the end of the horizon.  I first learned of this town from a chance acquaintance at a gym in Santa Fe, I was challenged as an artist and an adventurer.  Is it worth a three hour detour?  But what could be more exciting than an art town that had no silver jewelry shops with the southwestern motif of the Indian dream catcher.   Even the celebratory website encouraged its obscurity, with its most significant landmark an ersatz Prada shop done up in a derelict roadside café thirty eight miles outside of town.  The website announced the super cool chic motel (Thunderbird Motel with its appropriately retro name and minimalist style) and the classic, luxury old downtown hotel (The Paisano built in 1930).  I knew there must be something about the burg, when the website mentioned a set of renovated (in desert art chic style) casitas that are fully booked til February.  The final enticement was the declaration that this ‘art town’ did not even have one dive bar.  Whoa!  Isn’t that one of the enduring stereotypes, the long suffering artist with a shot of Jim Beam on the counter?

I headed toward the Rio Grande with the open mind of the curious, off beat traveler tempered with recent experience of the bus tour shoppers at Santa Fe.  It is a curious tension to be an artist and art lover and at the same time be a bit bugged when the cool art town becomes a commercial hit and caters to motifs that are sure to sell; wolves baying at the moon, angular whistle blowing kokopellis, and authentic turquoise big belt buckles.  Following the call, I barreled down the road in real Texas cowboy country, every twenty miles or so the 75 mph speed slows down to about 20 for the cow guard in the road.  The first one I hit with a bang to the suspension and the next I go nice and easy. 

Art imported from L.A.
Before arriving at Marfa you must pass through Ashley, which is the proud home of Sul Pass State College.   College town but no coffee shop hang outs.  The majority of excitement seemed to be at the local Dollar Store.  Downtown shops are boarded up but a brave tourist information center proudly offers free coffee and wi fi.  I pick up some fruit in anticipation of slim food choices in Marfa.  Those fruit saved the day on my trek out to the hot springs the following day.  Just before getting into town, I note a viewing platform on the side of this flat road.  (Mental note to come back later). 

Not a church, a studio
Marfa turned out to be a one of a kind.  It has been the location shoot for at least three Hollywood movies (Giant with James Dean, No Place for Old Men, & There Will Be Blood).  I can see why with its windblown desert ambiance, the stately county courthouse, and the regal Paisano Hotel.  A quick stroll around town revealed boarded up shops in the center of town right next to a gallery with an installation from L.A.  Across from the converted gas station pizza parlor is another gallery whose pieces are in the $30k range.  In a side room the gallery owner was in intense negotiations with a well dressed, mature art maven.  The scene could have fit in West Hollywood or Greenwich Village.  Next to the new NPR radio station was the public library which that evening had a showing of original animation shorts by a local filmmaker.  Within a couple more blocks was the regional headquarters of the Border Patrol and their housing area with clean, rectangular, nondescript abodes.  Walking back to my luxury hotel I passed beat up old houses with the roofs caving in next to super chic gentrified old adobes.   The coolest was a converted church.  And nowhere was a live person to be found. 

Can you see the LIGHT?
Needing a drink to assimilate this incongruity, I walked back to the hotel bar with its collection of older, well heeled, and proper guests.  The conversation was too erudite for my taste and I split for a slice of organic pizza and spinach salad at the converted gas station.  I overheard a local’s comments about the Marfa lights, got the skinny and headed back out of town again for the evening spectacle.  No bar in town so this seemed like the only game in town.  At the previously noted viewing platform about a dozen tourists traded tall tales they had heard about the ‘lights’, having been prepped by the locals where to look I instantly saw the light.  It was like a flickering star but very low on the horizon.  The blurb on the newly constructed platform declares there is no scientific explanation.  It is considered a ‘miracle.’ 

Reflecting on that word, miracle, on the way back to town, I realized I got more than I asked for in Marfa:   A one of kind art town whose best work is itself, vacant shops, high end galleries, luxury hotel, too cool motel, Border Patrol, and best of all the Marfa Lights.  This was gold for a road trip; unexpected, unplanned, unusual, and different.  Glad I made the three hour detour, I remembered that miracles happen when you least expect it.  Like the Marfa Lights, they are better left unexplained.

3 comments:

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  2. Ran, my friend Julie Finch married a young artist named Donald Judd back in the mid 60s. We all lived in NYC at the time, but the wedding took place at Julie's grandy's place in Maine.
    A few years after the wedding, Donald fell in love with a dusty, almost deserted little town in Texas called Marfa. Julie and Donald divorced after several years of marriage and two children. She got the loft in SoHo in NYC and he got the place in Marfa, where he built his sculpture studio.
    Friends and fellow artists began visiting, and before you could say "Holy Frank Stella", Marfa became an artists' colony. It's grown and changed and become gentrified over these past 40 years, and though I've never been there, I truly appreciate your account of finding it and telling it. Thank you.

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  3. Nice laid-back writing style, painting a colorful word picture of one of those experiences I call "the raisins in the raisin bread." They give the everyday a little extra flavor.

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