Not just deserts
Marfa, Texas, USA

Photography courtesy of Travel TexasPhotography courtesy of Travel TexasPhotography courtesy of The Lyda Hill Foundation Forms, part of Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Creative Commons.Photography courtesy of Clark HardingPhotography courtesy of Travel TexasPhotography courtesy of Hotel Saint GeorgePhotography courtesy of Travel Texas

Clark Harding discovers that Marfa is not your average Texan town.

I still maintain it was a Poodle…

I’m driving through El Paso just after sunset and turn on to the Route 90 freeway, towards Big Bend. I switch off my audiobook to concentrate because, man is it dark! My high beams pierce the abyss in front of me. I know I am nearing Prada Marfa, so I am intensely focused on not passing it. My somewhat unoriginal plan is to pull over for the perfect night capture of this strange retail folly in the middle of the arid Texan landscape, but now that I’m here, it is the stars that draw my attention upward. As an avid traveller, I’ve seen a lot of virgin sky, but here in the Westest of Texas, bordering Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert, The Milky Way is as crisp as a Hubble Telescope photo in a NatGeo foldout. The stars at night really are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas.

Right then, a white poodle darts across the road and I scream like Veronica Cartwright in Alien, almost swerving into the Prada store. My whole life flashes before my eyes.

When I reach town, deeply shaken and seeking comfort over my friend’s fire pit, I’m subject to their laughter.

“It was probably just a jackrabbit,” they chuckle to each other. 

“Would a jackrabbit be perfectly clipped and groomed?!” I retort.

“You sure it wasn’t a UFO? Or ‘The Ghost Lights of Marfa?’”

“But are UFOs fluffy?”

“Poodles in Chihuahu! Wonder what that mix would be? A Chi-Hoodle? A Poo-huahua?” they start to belly laugh over their drinks.

“I’m going to bed now. I hope you know you’re all terrible people.”

My friends cackle as I stomp off to my room. Why have I come all this way, only to see my long-planned, fantasy photo ruined by a phantom poodle? What the hell am I even doing here? 

But, in true Marfa fashion, the story only gets weirder…Many years ago when I first moved to Hollywood, I was roommates with another gay guy also named Clark. This Clark, ‘the other Clark’ (not to be confused with me in the third person) took a seasonal job one year at The Marfa Film Festival. Completely mesmerised by this rather strange place, he bought a historic building for five dollars and then renovated it for another five dollars. Today, he’s a full-time Marfan (I think that’s what you call them) and is now a thriving landlord in a bustling Airbnb economy out in the desert. A highly active filming location, the other Clark also gets more Hollywood jobs in Marfa than in actual Hollywood. After years of me judging, and years of the other Clark insisting I was being judgmental, I eventually heeded his insistence to at the very least give Marfa a good internet stalking. 

Landscape architecture

According to ancient Wiki-lore (the CliffsNotes version) Marfa, Texas is, metaphorically, an unlikely collision. What started as a watering stop along the railroad in the 1880s, became a military fort by the 1940s. What had fallen into decay by the 1960s was visited by New York artist Donald Judd in 1971, sparking the artistic movement that the city has become famous for and continues to this day. Judd founded the Chinati Foundation (named after the nearby Chinati Mountains) in 1976 with the goal of bringing art, architecture and nature together in order to form a coherent whole; and it kind of took on a life of its own. More artistic endeavours joined in: Ballroom Marfa and most famously, the Prada Marfa installation – a hermetically sealed replica of a Prada store, which elevated Marfa to a pop culture destination and a favourite of Instagram hunters. Thinking I would be the first person to discover a unique angle to this photo opportunity, I finally decided to venture across the Southwest and experience what the fuss was all about. Unfortunately, in my research, I found no reports of poodle-related incidents, supernatural or otherwise, to prepare me.

The big thing that held me back for so long, aside from general big-city snobbery and unwillingness to accept West Texas as a beacon of minimalist sculpture, was that Marfa is not an easy place to get to. The closest airport is in El Paso, a three-hour drive away. And although Amtrak has a Marfa stop, it’s one of those places where you need a car while you’re in town. Thus all signs point to a long – and in my case harrowing – road trip. 

But every morning when I wake up and push through my screen door, sipping coffee on my porch in the Texas sunrise (as if I was friggin’ Kevin Bacon in I Love Dick), I am able to understand that isolation is the key ingredient to this ghost-town-art-park’s unique recipe. Getting here is less of a schlep and more of a pilgrimage. Hipsters come from far and wide for one of Marfa’s countless signature festivals of art, cinema, music, The Mysterious Lights, or just to witness the town’s permanent collection of sculpture set among its decaying buildings. Mom jeans and ironic sunglasses pepper the main drag, carrying old-school maps and road atlases (because cell service sucks, part of the experience) in search of artistic treasure. There are designers looking for inspiration, artists hunkering down to complete their fellowships, tourists like eager children hunting for Easter Eggs; it takes such effort to get here that every small find is a well-earned discovery, celebrated of course, with a selfie.

“Many guests are not only art fans and UFO junkies, but also friends of Dorothy… in deeply Republican Texas.”

But the sky! 

People talk lovingly about the Texas sky and I always thought it was a myth. But in Marfa the sky is, literally, the limit. For every interesting find, the sky will distract your attention upward, tenfold. Every sunset has to be photographed. Every starry night must be gazed upon in disbelief and wonderment at the other Clark’s fire pit. 

“And it’s super gay,” Clark assures me one night, as if this topic of conversation was the only thing that would peel my attention away from the stars. Getting a large portion of the town’s visitor traffic at his Airbnb, Clark was surprised to find how many guests were not only art fans and UFO junkies, but also Friends of Dorothy … in deeply Republican Texas. And Clark isn’t the only gay-owned-and-operated hotel business in town. The much more high-profile, El Cosmico, which was opened in 2006 by celeb hotelier Liz Lambert, is a ‘Glamping Ground’ complete with refurbished vintage trailers, TeePees, Safari Tent options and a “Sweet Do Nothing” manifesto. 

“Oh yeah, Marfa has become the post-Coachella and pre-Burning Man, spot,” Clark assures me, with El Cosmico’s Trans Peco Music Festival. “Although… no one has ever brought a poodle with them, though.”

Eye roll.

The town is lit

Like a cartoon desert cliché, actual tumbleweed is known to blow across the road. But in Marfa, the tumbleweed would probably get collected, spray-painted pink and proudly displayed in a store window with fairy lights. Ranchers in cowboy hats would drive their pickups past otherworldly concrete boxes. On the horizon, a Blue Origin (Space X Rival) rocket is primed to catapult itself into the atmosphere. These are just small yet profound examples of how Marfa is more than a place, but the embodiment of expression. A mash-up of classic, Western Americana intersecting with art, science and the natural landscape has created an abundant ecosystem of living, breathing, collective oeuvres… and you can feel it. 

“My movements become highly intentional. It is as if I am part of something greater, like I am inside an art installation, being observed.”

As I hang out in Marfa, doing my best Jill Soloway impersonation with my reusable canvas bag from The Get Go (Marfa’s delightfully dinky grocery) over my shoulder; my movements become highly intentional. It is as if I am part of something greater, like I am inside an art installation, being observed. There is an eeriness to it all, though, a The Hills Have Eyes feeling. Which is not surprising as, aside from being in the general vicinity of Roswell, Marfa has its own unnatural phenomenon: The Lights. The mysterious orbs that flicker above the foliage and can move at lightning speed have been supposedly debunked by scientific circles as atmospheric reflections and/or human creations. However, they were first noted in the 1800s and have remained consistent since. Skeptics and phenomenon enthusiasts alike come to Marfa and – as fate should have it – the most popular viewing location is along Route 90 between town and the Prada store… or what I choose to call, Phantom Poodle Central. 

If I can’t get the best night photo of Prada Marfa, I will damn sure try to get the best sunset photo. Yes, I know; completely unoriginal, but hey. So after saying goodbye to the other Clark, I set out back the way I came along ‘the 90’ only to arrive at the Prada store, which was swarming with Hipsters, keen to get the same shot as I am. What is first annoying, quickly became heartwarming, as I watch a pop-cultural art installation bring so much joy to so many selfie-taking, fedora-wearing foreigners: art, architecture, and nature coming together to form a coherent whole. As I stand, waiting for the perfect moment to take my own picture, the group starts to sing in unison, “The stars at night, are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.” 

Right then, some tumbleweed blows across the road, with a piece of paper stuck to it. 

“Oh my god, grab it!” I scream, interrupting the poor, unsuspecting Glampers. They all stare in shock as I chase after the tumbleweed like a possessed maniac into the sunset and Chihuahuan desert. I don’t catch it, but I am pretty sure it was a ‘missing’ poster for a lost Poodle.  


The inside track

Clark Childers and Adam Walton, 105 Lincoln, Marfa, Texas, USA

Clark Childers and Adam Walton are the proprietors of the 105 Lincoln.
www.105lincoln.com

Hike

We understand that not all travellers are walkers. That said, the easiest quick hike is at Kim’s Ranch at the north end of Austin street, within the town limits.

Drive

We recommend cruising from Marfa to Fort Davis, Fort Davis to Alpine, then Alpine back to Marfa. Try to plan it so you can stop at the Marfa Light Viewing Station at twilight. 

Mingle

The best way to meet locals is at the pool at the Hotel Saint George. In the summer is stays buzzy until 5 pm. After that, head to Planet Marfa for the evening.


Get OutThere

Take an expedition with Rangefinder West Texas. It is the most luxurious way to see the National Park that nobody really knows about.
www.rangefinderwesttexas.com

Try and get to Big Bend National Park; it is close by and has a classic Americana West feel.
www.visitbigbend.com

Send a postcard. Hotel Paisano has a wide selection of Prada Marfa postcards that everyone loves to collect.
www.hotelpaisano.com

Eat lunch before 2 pm. Most restaurants close early so your only dining options will be  Subway or Dairy Queen. This is when you realise you’ve left the big city.

Take anti-histamines or allergy medicines. Desert flowers and dust can cause major allergic reactions, even in those who don’t usually suffer from allergies.

Don’t speed. Cops on Route 90 are generally unoccupied and may be so bored that they will pull you over just to have a chat.


For more on Marfa, Texas, check out www.marfachamber.org or www.visitmarfa.com.

If you fancy exploring the rest of the Lone Star State, www.traveltexas.com is a great resource.