Category Archives: Texas

Czeching Out West, Texas

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Yes, Czech Inn, Czech Stop, Merry Czechmas, Czech Point Antiques – they sure do have fun in West, Texas, a small town with a population that is, says the son of the owner at the Czech-American Restaurant, as he serves up cabbage rolls, “99 percent Czech”.

Texas is full of immigrant populations. I’m uncertain whether to include among the immigrants the Spanish who got here in 1519, or the Mexicans, given that for a time Texas was part of Mexico, or even the North Americans who the Mexicans -when they ran the place – allowed to settle in Texas. I’m sure immigrant populations from a North American perspective, probably includes Mexicans and foreigners in general. Anyway, there’s a lot of them in this portion of the Land of the Free, and among them, many whose ancestors came here in the late 19th century from what is now Czechoslovakia.

“It’s a little different here in West”, says the receptionist at the Czech Inn, who lives somewhere else. “They do things differently here.”

“They sure do” says the man leaning on the counter, who inspects things and has to drive a lot, and comes here once a week.

“Everyone is related to everyone” says the receptionist. “The people that own this are related to the people that own that. Everything is family-run: the hotel, the bars, the dress shops . . .”

It’s hard to tell whether they think this is a good thing. She does add that they all look out for each other; the young look after the old, work the fields and so forth.

(Aside from the other ones a bit like it – Praha – obviously, and Flatonia) West definitely is a very different kind of town. For a start there is a refreshing lack of chain stores and restaurants, and while there is a massive Sonic Drive-In looming over the low-slung Czech Stop, the crowds are in the bakery, licking their chops as they wait for fresh-baked kolaches. I don’t know precisely what they are, but they’re delicious, warm and fluffy and filled with everything from cream cheese, jalapeno and sausage to cream cheese and pumpkin, and probably very bad for you. Two elderly ladies who engage me in one of by now very frequent ‘you’re not from round here’ conversations, explain they make a long detour whenever they’re passing through Texas, just to come to this bakery and get a box-load.

There’s plenty of places to buy Czech food whether it’s Czechoslovak fries or sausage klobasniki made to recipes brought to Texas by Czech grandmothers. The Village Bakery claims to be the first of its kind in Texas, but it’s one of a few that include  Geriks Ole Czech Bakery. People not only eat a lot of kolaches round here, but they actually speak Czech, read Czech papers and stick up Czech signs – as well as drink Czech beer, as I discover in the cavernous Nors Sausage House when served a Staropramen. Exploring the old Western style streets of this quiet, dusty and friendly town is a top treat. Even the mill, producing feed for hundreds of farms around the region, is beautiful in its own, Marfa-ish way.

Aside from eating and drinking, visitors can head to the Katy Depot to read all about the Crash at Crush, a publicity stunt that involved crashing two 35-ton locomotives in 1896. Everyone in West is very proud of this event. There’s also train-watching – it runs right through the middle of the town making its mournful hoot. And every year there’s a Westfest, that combines kolaches, Pilsner, folk dancing, Western stuff and general merriment. Reckon that would be worth catching.

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God, Steak, Texas

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“Tell me if there’s anything to look at” I say, getting back to my book. Actually, the long, flatter than flat, Texan highways give me nothing but pleasure. The  white line along the edge is mesmerising; the dot that becomes a truck is mesmerising; counting pylons is mesmerising. The fact you can look over your shoulder and back again and the view’s the same . . . There are attractions along the road, it’s just they’re spaced one hundred miles or so apart.

When we crossed back into Texas from New Mexico west of Amarillo to head southeast in the general direction of Dallas and beyond, the wind was whipping up a dust storm and there was a dirty smudge around the horizon.  Advertisers are onto a good thing here; they know drivers are bored, eager  to read anything. So although there’s nothing and no-one around as far as the eye can see, nowhere selling anything, they snatch this opportunity to play with their minds, taunting road-users with the  72oz steak on offer 40 miles away, or the Macdonald’s burger 78 miles down the road. Sometimes, at the end of the ten minute drive between spotting and passing a lofty pole, the billboard turns out to be carrying messages of a more philosophical nature – Protect Your Heritage (horse and cowboy), Don’t Mess With Texas, or God is Alive. These are hard times; poles are frequently shared, so it’s not uncommon to see a big picture of a steak next to, say, Jesus is Lord.

In fact, driving along, it becomes apparent that what most interests Texans is big steaks and God – which might go some way to explaining to the steady spread of the cowboy church. I’d been spotting cowboy church signs outside sale barns and stock sheds around the country, but the majority of them are here in Texas, where there are now estimated to be well over 200. They are essentially churches, but with a message that’s pertinent to the cowboy way of life. Their roots are in the Christian outreach programs on the rodeo circuit, which started because it was easier to take a preacher man to cowboys, rather than wait for cowboys to leave the stockyard or saloon and come to church. When the attendance grew, the cowboy mission set up fixed places for services, usually on or by ranches or markets. They do baptisms in stock tanks, sing country gospel and keep it all short. I stood outside a cowboy church on a rubbly hill looking at a metalwork cowboy kneeling by his horse (also, a ‘watch out for rattlesnakes’ sign). It was all still and quiet, and the traffic, the pace of life below, made it poignant.

I have to make an honourable mention here to the super-friendly staff at the Super 8, Kenley Avenue, Wichita Falls, Texas. I did not want to go to a Super 8, nor Wichita Falls, but hey, guess what? Funny, normal, helpful staff turned a miscalculation of driving time into a good thing. I can not, hand on heart, recommend the motel as a top choice to anyone whose budget is uncapped, but I can recommend the Texas Roadhouse, which the girls at the desk recommended to us. Actually they were horrified we’d been driven through Texas before and hadn’t even tried one. I can’t believe we hadn’t either – they’re everywhere and very good (if you like great big slabs of grilled meat).

And a thank you to the officer who cautioned us for speeding so we wouldn’t do it again and posed for a picture.

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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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