Marfa News

Thursdays in Marfa bring a bit of excitement: the local paper – The Big Bend Sentinel - is published. (Can you call a paper “local” if it covers an area  of more than a million acres? I guess so, if the associated population is less than 25,000.)

While in Manhattan I try to limit my consumption of the news (too depressing), in Marfa it lifts my spirits to see what is considered news-worthy, to find out about upcoming events, to check out the ads for local businesses and to read the extremely un-edited letters to the editor.

Here’s some of my favorites from the past few weeks:

Yarn and Fiber Club Postponed

ALPINE – Due to unforeseen circumstances, the organizational meeting of yarn and fiber enthusiasts scheduled for tonight has been cancelled indefinitely.

What are these “unforseen circumstances”?! INTK!

Concealed Handgun Class Saturday in Alpine

Hmm – could this have anything to do with the unforseen circumstances affecting the Alpine yarn and fiber enthusiasts?

4-H Lamb, Meat Goat Validation Saturday

I could reprint the whole article, and you would still have no idea what this is talking about. However, it does helpfully say that if you have questions, please call County Extension Agent Jessie Lea Schneider.

Some other items that remind me that that “arts scene” (such as it is) in Marfa is the exception to the rule in this region:

Alpine Rancher is Cattlewomen President

4-H Reining Contest This Saturday

Anual Fall Turkey Shoot Saturday

Hunter Education Course is Saturday

Alpine Community Band Performs Sunday

Pee Wee Night is Friday

ALPINE – Calling all Pee Wee riders! Big Bend Cowboy Church (!!) will host a Freestyle Reining Contest and Play Day for competitors 8 years old and under. A negative Coggins is required. (Huh??) Participants in costume riding a reining pattern to music will be judged on their horsemanship, choreography, costume and originality. Following the Reining Contest will be a Play Day consisting of barrels, poles, flag race, keyhole race and goat ribbon race.

To be honest, I am still sorry that I missed this.

In the Business and Services Guide, I loved learning that the owner of Kenneth Nelson Remodeling is named Rusty Nelson.

Perhaps he should take a nickname cue from the owner of Ranch Improvement Company Number 2, Jimmy “Hammer” Melvin, who has been “specializing in ranch dirt work since 1978.” 

The ad next Nelson’s is for an attorney – Rusty Herman.

This place is so dry, I’m surprised there are so many Rustys.

I loved this ad:

Quick, get me an appointment with Josie Madrid! I need that hair do. How long has she been away? Since 1957?

But maybe Josie is a better alternative than her rival Marcy at the Americana Salon, who looks scary brandishing a scissors in her ad, and boasts that she is a fan of facial hair and mullets.

I also love that there is so litte news to fill the paper’s 10 or 12 pages (including a couple of pages for high school sports, homecoming parades, perfect attendance lists for the first 6 weeks of elementary school and honor roll members) that pretty much anything I’d seen and wondered about would be fully covered.

Those clearly-out-of-town well dressed 20 somethings? That was the Sundance Catalog shooting.

The sort-of-scary guy we saw making adobe blocks (don’t call them bricks!) down by the Chinati Hot Springs? That’s the third phase of  a church restoration project sponsored by The Texas Historical Commission.

If you stay in a small town long enough, I guess it’s inevitable that you will do something news-worthy. While paging through this week’s paper, I came across a picture of myself. That’s me in the back row on the left, attending a print-making workshop.

It took me about 7 years to achieve my dream of being quoted in The New York Times. And here I was with a picture in the Marfa paper after being here less than a month.

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Manhattan / Marfa

In deciding to spend a month in Marfa, I wanted to go somewhere that was about as different from Manhattan as I could find. Some thoughts on the two places.

marfa texas highland avenue

Manhattan / Marfa:

honking horns / cactus thorns

a thousand bars / countless stars

Central Park / the Food Shark

drag queens / Wranger jeans

working hard / cooking with lard

crime / time

Starbucks / cattle trucks

fashionistas / endless vistas

giant rats / cowboy hats

the Chrysler spire / barbed wire

constant prattle / silent cattle

stiletto heels / wagon wheels

cup cakes / rattle snakes

fire escapes / landscapes

Chase bank branches / enormous ranches

glitterati / Judd’s Chinati

fashion shoots / cowboy boots

elevators / inept waiters

that New York smell / the Paisano Hotel

world-class stores / unlocked doors

capitalist power / the water tower

huddled masses / waving grasses

mink furs / goathead burrs

Grand Central Station / The Judd Foundation

the rat race / endless space

Times Square sights / the Marfa lights

car alarms / tomato farms

melting-pot diversity / General Delivery

subway rails / hiking trails

Per Se / Carmen’s Cafe

a zillion bucks / pick-up trucks

Duane Reade / tumbleweed

actresses and ballerinas / aoudad and javelinas

“Goddamn!” / “Thank you, Ma’am”

Wall Street money / Big Bend honey

Family and friends / the journey ends.

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My Hundred-Mile Drive for Pie

One of the (few) food places I’d read about in the Big Bend region was Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit Bakery in Marathon Texas, known for its fried pies.

Marathon is 56 miles from Marfa – a long way to drive for pie – so when I saw that my return trip from Big Bend National Park would take me through Marathon, I was psyched to try the pie.

But unfortunately store hours in Marathon are much like those in Marfa, which is to say infrquent and erratic. shirley's burnt biscuit fried pies marathon texasNot easy for a New Yorker to remember; I am used to being able to get pretty much anything I want, 7 days a week, often 24 hours a day. But with a month to spend here, I figured I’d have plenty of time to try the pie.

I was also foiled in my second attempt to get to Shirley’s, as you may have already read.

I was determined not to strike out on my third pie try. Set my alarm (the only time I’d done that in Marfa), didn’t have any breakfast to make room for biscuits as well as pie, and got in the car to set out on the 112 mile round trip drive.

As I drove through the now-familiar but still-striking mountains and desert, I wondered what, exactly, I was doing.

marfa to marathon texas

Somewhere on Highway 90

What was the point of this trip – both this specific drive for pie, and the whole month in Marfa? I wasn’t doing any “Soul Searching” or “Deep Thinking”. I wasn’t working on my business. I was being my typical self – filling my days with activities, crossing things off my list. Yes, I was experiencing having time and space. But, really, so what?

Then, about 15 miles outside of Marfa,  I passed Allie on the highway in his rickshaw.

I’d met Allie my first week in Marfa, and he seemed like exactly the kind of person I’d expected to find drawn to the place. He’s your typical formerly-homeless Vietnam Vet who’s pursuing his dream to break the Guiness World Record for a long-distance rickshaw journey, travelling from California to Miami with his dog Roxie. Of course he is. He’s even got a website – www.rickshawroadtrip.com

I’d see him pretty much whereever I went in Marfa – at the shakuhachi zen flute concert, on the main drag, at The Pizza Foundation, at the Halloween Pet Costume Contest and Parade … You name it, Allie was there. He became one of the characters that I’d run into almost everyday, like the Dancing Cowboy or the book store guy or the tour guide woman.

So I thought of Allie as just another Marfan, a fixture in town. Until I saw him out there on the highway, alone, miles from anywhere, slowly pulling his rickshaw. It’s hard to explain, but it touched me deeply. It was one thing for me to drive in that expansive landscape at 70 miles an hour surrounded by a ton of steel. But the enormity of Allie’s journey – and of his humanity – got to me. And if I hadn’t been on my quest for pie, I would never have seen him, a lone man and his dog, in the middle of what it is hard not to call God’s Country.

And now, back to the pies!

A while later, I pulled up to Shirley’s. Was there early enough to chat with Don and some of the boys. (There is no longer a Shirley – there is Don.) And to get a half-order of sausage and biscuits. (“A half will be enough for you.”) And to finally try the pies. Now I’m not even a particularly huge pie fan, but I got one of each: apple, apricot, peach and blueberry. Actually, I got two blueberries. More on that second blueberry in a minute.

Shirley's  burnt biscuit bakery pie marathon texas

While a picture may be worth 1,000 words, it doesn't compare to one bite

The pies are really delicious. Sort of like if a McDonald’s apple pie died and went to heaven. Light and flaky, they don’t taste fried at all. The filling is fruity but not too sweet and is a good mix of chunky and gooey, and it combines with the inside of the pastry to create that third element, where the pastry and filling merge. Pie perfection. If you are anywhere near Marathon, I’d say it’s worth the drive.

I spent as much time as I could in Marathon, which is about an hour, even with a 10 mile drive to the public park to see a lovely pond in the desert. Maybe it’s because I have lived on the island of Manhattan for 25 years, or maybe it’s because when you see water in the desert you’re aware of how rare and precious it is, but whenever I come across water out here - from the Rio Grande to a tiny creek, it seems like an oasis.

marathon texas park

My pie quest fulfilled, I spent the rest of the day in Alpine, the biggest, most touristy city in the region, with motels, McDonalds and a university which is home to the Museum of the Big Bend, which is worth checking out if you’re in the area. The rest of Alpine, not so much, in my opinion.

It was about 8 hours later when I pulled into a roadside picnic area. There wasn’t a question in my mind who I would find there. I parked next to the rickshaw and gave Allie a hug. He said, “I see you everywhere!” I told him how I’d seen him on my drive out and how it affected me. And I gave him a pie. “How did you know I would be here? And how did you know that blueberry is my favorite?” he asked. I just knew. I gave him a donation for his trip and he said, “I am truly blessed.” And I have to admit, I felt the same way.

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I Am Planning My Day Around Pie

Okay, after 3 weeks in Marfa and West Texas, I am planning my day around Pie. Specifically, The Fried Pies at Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit Bakery in Marathon, Texas.

I am not even a particularly big fan of pie, and I’ve never had a fried pie. I’m not even exactly sure what it is. Maybe once I tried the apple pie at McDonalds? A zillion years ago. Does that count?

But I have run out of things to do. Yesterday I drove 60 or so miles to Balmorhea State Park to swim in a giant 1.75 acre pool that was built around a natural spring. Me, a duck, and a bunch of fish. A true oasis in the desert. (Watch the video in the link.) 

balmorhea state park pool

San Solomon Springs at "Bal-more-ay" State Park

It was a beautiful drive, and very cool to have that place all to myself. But, really, if there was something else to do, I probably would have done it. But there wasn’t.

So today was going to be Pie day. Did I mention that Marathon is 56 miles from Marfa? You know what? I’m happy for the 56 mile drive. More miles means more time spent on an activity. And those pies have gotten some great reviews. I asked my neighbor Mike if they were worth the drive. He said they were. (He’s lived in New York. His wife still lives there. I think he knows that I kind of need that drive, if not the pie.) Just now when I was googling Shirley’s to make sure they would be open (I’ve learned; call ahead), I found a review on Yelp:

“Go to your car now! Drive to Marathon…I don’t care how far a drive it is. Go straight to Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit and get a fried pie.  Yes, I’m serious, they are THAT good …. Seriously I’d marry the pie if it were legal. Yes, I love it that much.”

So I was psyched. 120 miles of driving. A fried pie, whatever the hell that is. A walk around cute little Marathon, “the catbird seat of West Texas” according to the guide book (5 minutes of activity googling “catbird”). 10 minutes or so in the gallery of Big Bend photographer James Evans. I could turn that into a whole day.

But I had a lazy morning. Hey, why not lie in bed for a while. And Alice was the only person working at Alice’s Cafe, so it was slow. Really slow. Slow even for Marfa. But I’d already been to Carmen’s Cafe three times, and Alice is just a block away from my house. So I felt I should give her a try. Even though I’d heard that while Alice is “as sweet as the day is long”, her food isn’t particulary good. And you know what, it’s not. But if you are in Marfa for a month, I won’t be surprised if you give it a try too. Because, really, how can you be here a month and not try every single eating establishment? Next on my list, the “Jalitos” at the Dairy Queen. Seriously. They are fried strips of jalapeno. “Served with ranch”.

Back to the pies. So after Alice’s, I got on the computer. I am going home next week and it’s time I tended to my somewhat-neglected business and clients. So I responded to  emails and made a couple of phone calls. And did all that reading about Shirley’s.

And by the time I looked at the clock, it was 11:40am. And Shirley’s (56 miles away), closes at 1:00pm.

Now what?

P.S. 1 hour spent on this blog post. Time for lunch? I probably already missed the daily special at The Food Shark. Not that I’m hungry. But it’s something to do. I feel like Bridget Jones, logging my minutes of activity like she tracked her cigarettes, drinks and weight.

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Marfa Tourist Information: What To Do In Marfa

If you’re thinking about visiting Marfa, here are some suggestions on what to do, based on how much time you’ll be here. Read on for ideas for: 

  • A virtual visit
  • Just passing through
  • A half-day
  • A few days
  • More

A virtual visit

Not ready to make the schlep to Marfa? Check these sites.

www.marfalist.org is Marfa’s answer to Craig’s list. Check it out to find out what’s going on in town and to get a sense of the locals.

www.marfacc.com – Marfa’s Chamber of Commerce. Lots of info about the town, things to do, and lots of links (although they tend to only include businesses who are members).

www.MarfaPublicRadio.org – Listen to the local NPR station online.

www.vrbo.com – Check out Marfa homes for rent for short-term stays. I’ll be posting some tips on renting a house in Marfa.

Websites for some of Marfa’s best-known attractions:

www.chinati.org – Perhaps Donald Judd’s greatest work: the former army fort that now houses site-specific art by Judd and some of his friends (Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenberg & Coosje van Bruggen and others).

www.juddfoundation.org – The keepers of Judd’s personal buildings in Marfa – his home, offices and studios.

www.hotelpaisano.com – One of the town’s architectural gems and a National Historic Site. Where Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson stayed while filming Giant.

Here’s a look at the Giant house set from a few years ago

marfa texas tourist information

From a photo at the Chamber of Commerce. The set is on a privately-owned ranch.

Marfa in the movies: Check out the scenery in Giant, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men , which were all filmed in the area. If you’re thinking of coming, you might want to save No Country until after you return. The president of the Marfa National Bank has a cameo as a vicitim.

Prada, Marfa http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prada_Marfa If you’ve heard of Marfa, you’ve probably heard about this art piece disguised as a Prada store.

The Food Shark - the town food truck that has deservedly gotten a ton of press. Drool at the photos of their specials.

Padre’s – Bar, food joint, game room, music venue, and social center of the town. See what’s going on and pretend you’re there, along with hipsters, ranchers, guys in cowboy hats or trucker hats, everyone having a good time.

El Cosmico  Check out pix of this unique lodging alternative where you can stay in a furnished Airstream trailer, tee pee or yurt (or pitch your own tent or hook up an RV).

Hotel Thunderbird – Take a look at this old motel, remodeled for minimalist hipsters. Lots of Marfa and area links on their About Us/Marfa page.

Just Passing Through

If for some unfathomable reason you are in the area but are just passing through Marfa, here’s some “drive-by” activities:

Tune into Marfa Public Radio at 93.5FM

Drive through the main intersection, where Highway 90 and Route 67 cross. Marvel that “traffic” at this crossroads is controlled by a blinking yellow light.

Drive or walk north on Highland Avenue (Route 67), admire the architecture and the Courthouse and Marfa water tower at the end of the street.

Check out the authentic Judd furniture in the shade shed by the rail road tracks.

Pop into the Hotel Paisano and check out the courtyard, bar, mini Giant museum, massive animal heads in the lobby, and the pool (follow the signs at the steps towards the back right).

If it’s open, climb up a few flights of stairs to the dome in the Courthouse for an amazing 360 degree view of the area from one of the highest points in miles.

Drive on Highway 17 just south of town and get a view of Judd’s 15 concrete works, which stretch out over a kilometer.

donald judd untiled works in concrete chinati marfa texas

Drive on Highway 90/San Antonio and take in the 1950′s buildings, some of which have been remodeled as homes, galleries, and other businesses.

If you have time:

Have a drink in the Paisano courtyard

Grab lunch at the Food Shark in the shade pavillion, Tuesday – Friday, 11:30 – 3pm, and some Saturdays.

Have a really great slice of pizza at The Pizza Foundation.

Pick up some snacks at The Get Go Grocery

Have a coffee or ice cream at Frama. It’s surprisingly good coffee, especially considering that the place is connected to the Tumbleweed laundromat. (Cutest name ever, right?)

Or, if DQ is more your taste, there is a Dairy Queen in town (though it’s never mentioned in the travel pieces on Marfa).

Have a drink, play some pin ball, or get something to eat at Padre’s. Bring your kids! Children are welcome in bars in Texas.

If you’re heading into or out of town via Highway 90, you can’t miss Prada, Marfa (which is actually outside of Valentine, about 37 miles from Marfa). Well, if you’re barrelling along at 60 miles an hour you can miss it, but once you pass it you’ll realize it, and it’s easy enough to turn around on this empty stretch of road. (Can you tell that’s what I did?)

A half day

Judd Judd Judd.

Donald Judd is the man who put Marfa on the map. If  you’ve heard of the place, you probably know that. He’s the “minimalist” artist (tho he hated the term) who kind of bought the town and created www.Chinati.com as a non-museum showcase for his art and that of his friends.

Go.

Sign up for the tour. Take in the grounds. Walk the kilometer. Listen to the crickets. See the shrine of his house and studio. Do it all.

Eat at Cochineal. Twice if you can.

A few days

For most people, this is probably the ideal amount of time in Marfa. You will be able to do pretty much “all that Marfa has to offer”:

Judd

Poke into every store and gallery

Have breakfast burritos and home made donuts at xxx if it’s still open.

Go to an event at the Bookstore.

Check out www.marfaslist.com for fun to see what the locals are up to.

Become a regular at Frama or Squeeze Marfa or the Paisono Hotel or Food Shark or Padres. Or all of them.

See the Marfa Lights. Or think you did.

Be woken up by the trains in the middle of the night. Again. And again. And again.

Fall in love with the place.

More

Explore the region.

Big Bend National Park

Chinati Hot Springs

Museum of the Big Bend at Alpine.

Star gazing at Davis.

Maybe even drive 100 miles for pie.

Hotel in Valentine.

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Marfa: What’s in a Name?

No one really seems to know, but word is that a railroad executive’s wife named Marfa for a character in either Crime and Punishment or The Brother’s Karamazov.

Whereever it came from, Marfa is a pretty cool name. Would the town be as hip if it had a prosaic name like its neighbors Fort Davis and Alpine? Then again, the romantic Valentine, Texas hasn’t really taken off

Whether or not the name has helped make the place, it’s clear that the locals love Marfa. I’ve never seen so many references to a town name in such a small place. I mean, it’s not like there’s more than one bookstore – does it need to be The Marfa Book Company?

If you’ve been here, see if you can ID where each of these Marfas is from.

We’ll start easy

marfa texas

It's not Marfa, but ... Get it?

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The Border

When I told people I was going to Marfa, one of the first things I was warned about was The Border. Beheadings! Kidnappings! Who knows what else. You’d think I was going to Iraq, not Texas, the way some people talked about it. Didn’t quite make sense to me, since the town seemed pretty far inland to me (60 miles north of Presidio, which is on the Rio Grande).

I guess in the same way that 9/11 can seem sort of abstract to someone who didn’t live in a city where the attacks took place or have relatives who were involved, all the ranting and raving on talk shows about the border doesn’t quite register to me as a New Yorker.

So I was surprised in my first few days here to see a border patrol truck where ever I went.

I really couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to come to a part of the country where you had to drive 30 miles to the nearest town. One glance out over the desert and you can spot anyone coming from miles away. Not to mention the fact that the towns are so small that everyone knows everyone else. Didn’t seem like a prime area for smuggling people or drugs to me.

But despite its remoteness, Marfa seems to be Border Central. There are two Border Patrol offices here and I’ve been told it’s the biggest employer in the town.

marfa border patrol

The “Department of Homeland Security” also had always seemed kind of vague and made-up to me (maybe because of that bizarre term “homeland”, which seems kind of old-fashioned and doesn’t sound as important as if it was called the U.S. Security Department). Was sort of reassuring to see their sign:

In New York I am so used to being subjected to the “security” procedures at office buildings, museums, etc. – it is something different out here where it is the real deal, and you know the agents are armed. And it’s pretty frightening to think what they might be up against when you see their serious bullet-proof vests.

There was an article in The Big Bend Sentinel (the “local” paper of the whole region, I think) about several hundred pounds of pot that were found hidden in the wheels of old tractors being brought into the US on a truck. A savvy agent was suspicious since the old equipment ususally goes from the US to Mexico, not vice versa.

Going down to Big Bend by the Rio Grande, I thought we would see much more border activity. But we hardly saw any. And this was in places where you could literally – and easily – wade or swim over the border.

rio grande mexican border

That's Mexico, right across the water

See the hordes of illegal immigrants flooding into our homeland, the vicious kidnappers, and the machine-gun toting drug lords?

I understand that the border has problems in some places, but the border from Presidio to Big Bend National Park is one of the most peaceful, beautiful places ever. National Geographic has called The River Road drive one of the most scenic in the country. (I’ll do my Big Bend post next – in the meantime you can sneak preview some pix: click here )

The idea of building a 15 foot wall here seems pretty insane to me. Especially when I heard that cows and other animals from both countries cross the river to get to food on the other side.

Why can’t man be more like the animals?

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