Category Archives: Marfa

USA ROAD TRIP

Elvis’ favourite booth, Arcade Restaurant, South Main, Memphis.

The 80 posts, videos and photo galleries, written, edited and uploaded – fast – in motels during a 3 month road trip are instant snapshots of life as I saw it in passing. I mapped a route from Detroit to Alabama, across to LA, up the west coast and back that took me to the places I knew nothing about (Dripping Springs, Hocking Hills) to see what was there, and to places I knew not enough about (Montgomery, Little Rock, Memphis). I went to Marfa to see Prada Marfa and find out more about Donald Judd, to West for a taste of Czech culture, and to Breaux Bridge to eat crawfish, and went to plenty of places to find out more about the tiny house movement. I saw the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Hoover Dam, stayed in LA, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, New Orleans, but it was the smaller attractions, people in ordinary places and the stretched spaces in between that I enjoyed more.

“The Lord told Job ‘Pull your pants up, punk!'” – baptist preacher, local radio, Alabama.

There are some useful travel tips in there including a list of the motels I stayed at, but this wasn’t a sponsored or supported or commissioned trip and it was done in late 2012/2013 (with a friend who drove). Each post is a slight vignette. If as a whole they serve any purpose, I hope it is as a reminder that wandering is a joy and the ordinary is extraordinary.

The trip runs backwards. The posts are listed under Contents, but here are some favourites.

America: In conclusionMotels and Shootings  |  Czeching Out West, Texas   |  To Grand Canyon & Beyond  – just a video shot from the window in changing weather with a brief interlude at one of the wonders of the world  | Dam Boring – just because the Hoover Dam is big, doesn’t make it interesting   |  Mojave (the drive to Vegas) – another dreamy drive, into sin capital  | Palm Springs House-Hunting – mid-centuries for when I win the lottery   | Ghost Town, New Mexico – rough edited video of one of the most atmospheric AirBnBs  | Visiting Marfa, Texas   |  On the (Texas) Road – a through the window video  |  New Orleans  – this post just colourful doors.

On tiny houses: Shelter founder Lloyd KahnReclaimed Space, | The Bone House | Interview at The Bone HouseTiny Texas Houses | Tumbleweed

Visiting Marfa, Texas

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It’s 428 miles from Austin to Marfa. And although there are eight (inhabited) towns on, or at least near, the route, that still gives plenty of time staring at sand to think about why you’re bothering to go in the first place. For a little Texas town, it punches well above its weight. It’s a small, hot, dusty town (pop. of 2000 peppered across a few small blocks) with an airport for private jets and a lot of big names hiding out eating tacos.

It was artist, Donald Judd, who started it all in 1971 when, tired of the New York art world he came to to this desert town for its whistling, tumbleweed space, and rented a house. His big, clean, simple (if not minimalist) works and installations are preserved in Marfa by the Chinati Foundation and in some way by the Judd Foundation, and are the original draw. There are other foundations too, and artists inspired to do big conceptual things of their own. There are also plenty of filmmakers and screenwriters and actors.

Anyway, to the untutored eye Marfa could look like a scrapyard, given the rusting cars, industrial pipes, corrugated iron, baked empty earth lots, scrub and weed pushing on through adobe buildings, just-there electrical substation, railway tracks and sidings, abandoned trailers, faded signs and what-nots. There are plenty of towns like this down here that aren’t artsy; they’re just poor.  In fact, Valentine, the next town west, has most of the same stuff lying around in it, but it’s not the Chosen One.

Musing in the parking lot of El Cosmico – the super-cool, urban hipster, pricy airstream trailer and teepee retreat – I wonder whether this isn’t all a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes? It has a ‘Creative Lab’ and  ‘Amphitheatre’, but off-brochure there’s not much to distinguish this site from the Tumble In RV Park on the others side of town where you can pitch a tent on the scrub for $15, or to be honest, from some of the yards you pass on the way, where old cars and RVs sit abandoned in the sun. Or am I just telling myself that because they’re full? The fact is that despite feeling suckered in by the term ‘vintage’ and the nice retro signage, I do find it all weirdly beautiful – and clearly so does everyone else rolling up in the hope of a cancellation.

That confusion applies to Marfa as a whole. One part of me says let’s be honest, if people really want to go somewhere to get away from it all, there are a hell of a lot of places to choose from in Texas. That might have been Marfa when they filmed Giant and James Dean was down to earth and flirty friends with all the local girls and Liz and Rock hung out at the Paisano, but today’s town is too popular to be free and cheap and lawless. There’s something a little tense and self-consciously special here, that makes me feel like a voyeur and a fan rather than a relaxed escapee.

Then there’s the Marfa Lights. Even the bloke some hundred or so miles away who gave us the gas to prevent us from running out of fuel on the I-10 and ending up as two piles of bleached bones, even he asked if we were going to see the Marfa Lights. Everyone talks about them – there’s an observatory, maps – the lot. These aren’t the aurora borealis. They’re a bit like headlights, although to be fair they come from a place without roads and were spotted by a rancher, Robert Reed Ellison in 1883. So remain sceptical? Or abandon yourself to awe and wonderment? There’s a lot of thinking on both sides. Personally, I’d have gone for wonder, but for Mr Sceptic, back in the car with the radio on.

The other part of me though is loving it; admiring telegraph poles, cactus, empty buildings. Confusing. Fact is some things about Marfa are indisputably lovely, like so many of the buildings – Ballroom Marfa, the old National Bank, the Contemporary gallery and Pizza Foundation, the Courthouse and the Thunderbird motel, and random private homes. Plus, there’s the 50’s – 60s style signage, the never-to-be-forgotten art – Judd’s, and others, with Prada Marfa one of the biggest, funniest and the best, and perfect encapsulation of Marfa’s cool weirdness.

BTW Larry Clark’s Marfa Girl (wanton youth, small-town Texas), shot in Marfa, won Best Picture at the Rome Film Festival.

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Food Marfa

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Top food in Marfa comes out of vintage vehicles. For the best breakfast in the world track down the Boyz2Men taco trailer and get yourself an egg, bacon and fresh japapeno mash nestling in a corn tortilla and add lashings of Tabasco. Then for lunch, head to the Food Shark (open Tuesday – Friday 11:30am 3pm (‘and the occasional Saturday’) for falafel balls with yogurt, tahini and harissa sauces, greek salad, hummus and flatbread or fatoush salad. Hey, if it’s good enough for Beyonce . . .

It closes for winter, and during the week, but when it is open, Planet Marfa is a fun and friendly, hence popular place to spend an evening. Run by John and Olsa, it’s essentially a pretty garden with fairy lights, small dance floor, teepee and seriously good nachos on offer. Alternatively the Pizza Foundation pizzas are said to be the best this side of the Mississippi. There was a two-hour waiting list when I rolled up, and at the end of that wait quite honestly anything would have tasted good, but no doubt about it these giant crusty pizzas are good. The white table cloth dinner option is Maiya’s. It was closed when I passed, but if it hadn’t have been, I’d have ordered Maiya’s Puntarelle: ‘Shaved and chopped crisp celery stalks, salty anchovy, lemon juice, fruity olive oil, avocado, grilled bread, parsley’, followed by Vodka Pasta:  ‘Penne pasta, tomato, cream, Gruyere cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano. A bit spicy.’

Incidentally, the Pizza Foundation is run by Saarin, sister of Maiya, daughters of most excellent Marfa artist, Mary Shaffer. As for the whereabouts of all these places – really, they’re not hard to find; Marfa is small.

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Prada Marfa

PRADA MARFA: a site specific, permanent land art project by artists Elmgreen & Dragset was commissioned by Art Production Fund and Ballroom Marfa back in 2005. Modeled after a Prada boutique, the structure includes luxury goods from the Fall 2005 collection. However, in true conceptual artsy fashion, the door doesn’t open and nothing is for sale. The building is located in the middle of nowhere, 36 miles west of Marfa. Yes, that’s 36, not, as the helpful receptionist at El Cosmico suggested,  ’20 miles towards the sun’.

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From Austin to Marfa

Texas is big. Luling (A) to Austin to Marfa (C), 473 miles

If I was a nerd I would overlay the route taken by Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas. He didn’t get to Paris, Texas, but he – by which I really mean the great Harry Dean Stanton plus director, Wim Wenders and crew – did travel along Highway 10 from Houston to Fort Stockton, Marathon and onto El Paso. And to my mind there’s no film that catches the vast, flat dustiness and power and scale of southern Texas, like Paris Texas does. Helped of course by Ry Cooder’s plaintive soundtrack.

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