Category Archives: Southern States

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


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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Tiny Texas Houses

Obviously once I find Somewheresville, I’m going to need something to live in. The industrial spaces and trashed duplexes being bought for pennies / cents and lovingly restored in Detroit are tempting, mainly because the people involved in reviving the city are so inspiring. The wooden cottages in Hillsborough, North Carolina are pretty as a picture, with enough quirks and antiquity to make them odd and interesting, creaky and atmospheric. And I do like a porch. And the tropical colours, raised elevation and ornate flourishes, verandas and columns of New Orleans Shotgun houses . . . well, ooh la la. However, none are exactly where I would have them. Hence the fascination with mobile / modular / pod / prefab housing. Our route across the USA has been designed to take us to the workshops of as many of the leading practitioners as possible. The stay in Luling wasn’t just to sniff the oil and meet Thomas, as interesting as that was, but to pay a visit to Tiny Texas Houses and meet the founder and owner, Brad Kittel.

I can’t do justice to Brad’s philosophy, justification, ideas and influence – or his tiny gem-like houses in the space of a blog post, but I’ll be writing and uploading lots of footage on both Tiny Texas Houses and mobile, container and reclaimed houses in general (offline but posting online) at a later point. This is a rough taster. Suffice to say I called in unannounced in the hope of a 30-minute chat and left 8 hours later (partly because the car refused to start) which Brad would say was divine intervention and the Hertz rental people would say was the ignition.

The biggest house in Texas is 42,000 sq. feet. Brad is taking things the other way, hoping to “create the antithesis of what America has become to the rest of the world, which is the epitome of excess”. The houses are architectural gems, and mobile; desirable as off-grid retreats but also, increasingly, as primary dwellings for the growing number of Americans keen to divest themselves of stuff. Aside from providing a different sort of housing option, the houses are made from material that would otherwise be in landfills, and re-investing energy and materials – and encouraging others to do the same – is core to Brad’s mission. As he says:

“Our custom Tiny Texas Houses have been designed and built with 99% Pure Salvage. That means that everything from the doors, floors, windows, lumber, porch posts, glass, door hardware, interior walls and even the siding has been saved and re-used to create houses that we hope will last for a century or more. Our small homes built with salvaged vintage materials demonstrate that it is possible to reduce our carbon footprint, simplify our lives, and live in a healthy house that is energy efficient as well as beautiful. Each Tiny Texas House is a unique piece of House Art that will last for the rest of the owner’s lives and for generations to come.”  (See for more inspiring info).

Brad lived all over before coming to South Texas, but there’s something about this hot, dry place with its big skies that either draws or creates people with anything-is-possible big ideas.

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hotrods and customs

People shouldn’t do coast to coast road trips across America in modern a Chevy. It’s just plain wrong. Irony is, try it in something that fits my rigid idea of the right kind of car, and we probably wouldn’t make L.A. at all. However, I’m always on the lookout for what could have been, and so we screeched to a halt outside Crumley Customs on the outskirts of the metropolis that is Luling. Eric Crumley restores and resuscitates everything, and he showed us what he currently had in his yard, from a TransAm race car, hog-hunting truck (‘they chase it down get out and cut its throat and sling it in the back’), a 1947 coupe, Oldsmobile, Chrysler, and Bonnie and Clyde era old Ford. He demonstrated how suicide doors opened, hinged at the back, (‘popular in the old days for throwing dead bodies out’) and how pumping nitrogen into lowriders made them rise up and drop down on the chassis. Dave wanted the orange truck, I wanted the purple sharky one. Anyway if you happen to be in Luling, looking for a car, or you’ve picked up a pile of rust in the hope of a miraculous restoration, try Eric in Luling on 830-263-0104.

Postscript on this: be careful what you wish for. Four short hours after looking at the Chevy through narrowed eyes, hating, hating it for all its modern bits, it packed up and we were towed to Austin.

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Toughest town in Texas

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We rode into Luling at nightfall, tied up the hosses and walked bandy-legged, spurs clinking to the saloon, where some old timer gun slinger was playing honky-tonk. Actually we drove into Luling (Loo-ooo-lin’) and after checking several times there was no other option available checked into the oddly-named Carefree Motel. (More on ‘did we do the right thing not buying an old RV’ later). There are about 5000 people living here in a town that prides itself on its Watermelon Thump, ‘a four day fun filled festival full of music, watermelon eating, watermelon seed spitting, dancing, food, drink and good times’,  but few in evidence. The streets – or street – is empty, and for all the modern trimmings (the Hairtease Studio, the Silver Willow Boutique and Brushy Creek Outdoors for guns and ammo) it has the feel of a scene in a Western set the day after a big shoot-out.

And that’s about right, because Luling sits on the Chisholm Trail, the route that Texan ranchers used to get their cattle from Rio Grande to the Kansas Pacific Railway in Abilene. By the time cowboys got to Luling from whichever direction, they were beginning to get gnarly and thirsty. Fights and shoot-outs and general drunkenness gave Luling the reputation of the toughest town in Texas. You get the general picture in The Texans 1938 starring Randolph Scott, and Howard Hawks’ Red River 1948 with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift.But, as I say, now it’s known for its watermelon thump. And it’s oil which lies beneath the fields and gives the town its peculiar smell.

“Everyone has oil. I don’t have oil, but everyone does. Keep sucking it out and it’s all going to sink into a hole, know what I mean” grins the man on the next barstool in a dim-lit, corrugated iron hanger we’ve managed to find in a dark back street, the only place open after 8pm. He introduces himself as Thomas, Boston Irish, a chef, whose been living in ‘this po’boy pissing dump by which I mean small village’ for four years after trying a few other places, like Denver which he says, incredulously, is ‘made of bricks. all bricks, the houses are bricks the sidewalks . . . the roads bricks – all f***ing bricks. It’s all wood here and they wonder why they get cockroaches. If they can get their head into a crack, they can get everything in. Like mice. I worked in pest control for a time . . .’

He says his first job was in Boston when he was 14, travelling the subway delivering bags from the Irish in North Boston to the Italians in South Boston and vice versa, and getting $200 a time for his trouble. He shows us the tattoo his boss stamped on his forearm and told to keep visible to protect him. When his mother saw it she gave him a walloping ‘and that was that’.  He can do fighting talk in Boston and New York drawls, Mexican and Cajun, and says Jesse James initials are carved in the wall of the local jailhouse which he’s seen a few times, personally, close-up.

Three decades on he’s been here long enough to say ‘y’all’ (“I turned to the girl I work with and said ‘f**k, did I really say that?’, and she said ‘yeah, yeah you did’. No!”) and has just started as a chef at a new chicken place: ‘Fried, crispy chicken. They should have added juicy. It’s real juicy. The best I’ve ever tasted. People come in, try it and tell me that. That’s all you can ask for. That makes me happy. I love my job.”

There’s sweet country & western reverberating from the jukebox, two or three other men, elbows on the bar, nursing beers, and a feisty barmaid. This is how the nights go in Luling. I wondered why he was there, and he says he came to be with his boys. “I’ve got two boys, 8 and 13. Beautiful boys, very handsome. I’ve got a picture here . . . or maybe I haven’t. They live with their mother about 14 miles away I used to get them every weekend. I haven’t seen them for three years. But now I’ve got the job. I can get a lawyer and everything’s going to be alright.”

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