Discovering Marfa, Texas
Tough to get to. Tougher to explain. But once you get here, you get it.
After a hot and *slightly* hungover 7 hour drive from Austin, Texas we arrived in the small desert town in far west Texas we set our sights on months ago. It was dead. We rolled through the 4-way stop our Airbnb host mentioned in her directions as a signal for where our GPS might conk out. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this intersection where San Antonio St. meets Highland Ave, would become our biggest landmark during our 4 day stay in this unlikely art mecca named Marfa.
Marfa was our first destination under Project Murray and we had a #travelfail on our first shot. Wrongly assuming Marfa was like other ‘cities,’ we didn’t bother looking into business hours for the places we wanted to visit and quickly learned the town is basically SHUT DOWN Monday through Wednesday.
After checking into our silver trailer from the 1950’s, we ventured back out for dinner but nothing was open except for restaurants in the two main hotels in town - Hotel Paisano and Hotel Saint George. We sat at the bar at Jett’s Grill in the historic Hotel Paisano and had a nice meal (nothing compared to the insanely good one we had at Sway in Austin the night before). One other couple sat at the bar with us and we saw them again the next morning at breakfast, an occurrence that happened to us several times during our stay in Marfa. With a population just over 2,000 and limited food options, running into people is the way of life in this small town. It’s a place where everybody knows everybody and news travels fast.
We originally planned to leave Marfa Wednesday morning, but asked ourselves “What Would Judd Do?” and extended our stay. And we’re glad we did. If we left Wednesday, we wouldn’t have been able to visit The Chinati Foundation, one of the main reasons for our trip.
The Chinati Foundation
The Chinati Foundation (named after the Chinati Mountain range south of Marfa and established on a decommissioned military fort) is a contemporary art museum founded by the late American minimalist artist, Donald Judd. It’s mission is to preserve and present permanent large-scale installations by a limited number of artists, including himself and close friend Dan Flavin. The idea was that art and its context are one and so the foundation’s emphasis is on works in which art and its surrounding landscape are inextricably linked.
Judd’s main feat on display at the Foundation, 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, sits inside two barrack buildings and it could never exist in any other space (and not only because each piece weighs about 2 tons and would be impossible and really expensive to move). Marfa’s dry desert landscape with wide-open blue sky, tall blonde grass, and green agave plants make the perfect backdrop to his sleek, industrial geometric boxes.
Judd’s other installation, 15 Untitled Works in Concrete, is outside and best experienced in the morning or at dusk when light is softer and less harsh. You’ll also appreciate cooler temperatures because the concrete containers run along the entire border of the 340-acre property and it can be unbearable to tour in the afternoon heat. This was Judd’s first work here and its fun to see it meld into its surroundings as scores of bunny rabbits have made the massive sculptures their home.
Dan Flavin’s large scale work at the Foundation is expansive and also couldn’t be experienced anywhere else. His Untitled (Marfa project) is an immersive work made from space and brightly colored fluorescent lights that you have to walk through 6 U-shaped buildings to see in its entirety. The 8-foot tall light pieces can be intense and disorienting and stepping outside into Marfa’s quiet and calming surroundings acts as the perfect antidote - a palette cleanser between art pieces. (No photos were allowed.)
Prada Marfa, the permanent art installation that put Marfa on the map, isn’t actually in Marfa. It’s 40 min west on Route 90 in an even smaller and more deserted town, Valentine (Population 126). It’s a site-specific piece by Elmgreen and Dragset, two European artists who modeled the structure after a Prada boutique as an experiment in fusing Pop with Land Art.
Stripped of its context, the luxury ‘store’ successfully critiques our consumerist culture and serves as a time capsule for the time it was made (2005). It’s also become the best hiding spot for illegal immigrants who wait to be picked up behind it after crossing the Mexican border and trekking through the open desert without any other cover.
We met a friendly Border Patrol officer when we made our visit and he told us all about it. He was camped out with a truck across the street waiting to pickup the group he had been tipped off about and kept busy by helping tourists take photos.
We also met a fellow German who road tripped to Marfa from Dallas in his beautifully maintained vintage car. Proud of his baby, he snapped a few photos of us sitting on top of it in front of the ‘store’ as the sun set over the mountains.
Balmorhea State Park
Stuck in 105 degree heat with no coffee shop or museum to cool off in, we took a tip from a local at Marfa Book Co. and drove up to Balmorhea State Park to take a swim in the nearest public watering hole. Our timing was perfect too because it had just re-opened after being shutdown from a wildfire and we got to have the place to ourselves for a bit.
And as it turns out, San Solomon Springs in Balmorhea Park is the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world. Over 15 million gallons of water flow through the spring everyday and the water is consistently warm (between 72-76 degrees year round) because it maintains the same temperature as the underground rocks it flows through. It’s also a free fish pedicure because tiny pupfish nibble at your feet. It’s a treat.
The pool is an hour drive from Marfa but we highly recommend it as a retreat from all the art talk in town, especially in the warm summer months when you’ll need to beat the heat.
If you want to go
How to get there
We drove from Austin but the shortest and easiest way to get to Marfa is to fly into Midland and drive from there (~3hrs).
What to do
The Chinati Foundation - a visit to artist Donald Judd’s permanent art collection is a must. Large scale works by Judd, Flavin, and Chamberlain do not disappoint.
Judd Foundation’s Block Tour - get inside the artist’s mind by entering Judd’s old home and studio space, which used to be a US military base. It’s called ‘The Block’ because the property takes up a full city block. Highly recommend.
McDonald Observatory - 45min north of Marfa, sitting atop the Davis Mountains, this observatory hosts a popular Star Party every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Tickets almost always sell out so reserve in advance.
Capri Bar - sip on a sotol cocktail at this super-cool bar/restaurant/garden/event space tied to the Thunderbird Hotel.
Balmorhea State Park pool - cool off with a dip in the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. It’s an hour from Marfa, but the drive through the Davis Mountains is delightful.
Marfa Lights - mysterious and unexplained ghost lights have been seen outside Marfa since the early settlers. Head to the official Viewing Area east of town on Highway 90 to try to spot them. Bring an open mind.
Where to stay
Hotel Paisano - centrally located historic hotel first opened in 1930 and billed as “the most elegant hotel between El Paso and San Antonio.” Restored yet retains its original charm. Rooms start at $130 and the hotel has a pool, gym, restaurant and cute courtyard.
Thunderbird Hotel - retro 1950s motel turned hip minimal hotel akin to the Ace Palm Springs. Rooms, featuring local art and cow-hide rugs, start at $160 and guests have access to a vinyl record collection, classic typewriters, and bikes for rent.
El Cosmico - huge boho-hip campground with cultural ‘happenings’ and a Burning Man-like spirit of “liberation from the built world”. The 21 acre property has cool communal spaces like a hammock grove, outdoor kitchen, stage and reading room. Choice of shelter starting at $85 range from vintage trailer, safari tent, teepee or yurt with wood-fired hot tubs and bikes available for rent.
Note: if you’re visiting in the middle of summer or winter where temperatures can be extreme, we recommend staying in a house or hotel.
Where to eat & drink
Hotel Saint George - we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner here and can confirm their brisket sandwich is a big winner. Seriously, it was the best thing we ate in West Texas, get it. Also a lovely option for upscale accommodation. (Open 7 days/wk)
Food Shark - food truck surrounded by vintage cars serving Mediterranean deliciousness like the Marfalafel sandwich and other specials & plates. Ample seating includes an old school bus with tables. Need more convincing? Watch their commercial. (Open for lunch Wed – Sat, Noon-3pm and for dinner on Friday 7-11pm)
Marfa Burrito - Ramona, the burrito lady, makes everything from scratch here (you can watch while you wait) and the food is simple, comforting and good. (Usually open Mon-Sat from 6am-2pm)
Pizza Foundation - it wasn’t open while we were there, but heard good things. (Open Fri-Sun, 1-9pm)
Stellina - delicious Italian/Mediterranean home cooking with seasonal dishes, great wine, friendly servers and a beautiful interior. (Open Tues-Sat, 5– 9pm ish)
Planet Marfa - Happening spot with teepee, bus, roof top deck, ping-pong, games, and music. Beer & Wine only. (Open Fri - Sun from Spring Break thru Thanksgiving)
Lost Horse Saloon - if this was our local dive, we wouldn’t be mad. Lots of character: interior and people - locals and tourists alike. (Open daily 4pm-Midnight, earlier on Saturday)
Where to shop
The Get Go - grocery store with all of the organic goods and necessities you need. (Open daily 9am-8pm ish)
Frida - cute lil' boutique with handcrafted jewelry, clothing, apothecary and gifts. (Closed now with plans to re-open in August)
Garza Furniture - husband and wife team designing furniture and textiles inspired by Marfa and its surroundings. Their saddle leather chairs are awesome. (Call to schedule a visit)
Cobra Rock Boot Company - another husband and wife duo making handmade boots with a minimalist, western style. (Open Wed - Sun 11am to 5pm)
Big Bend Coffee Roasters - local, independent coffee roaster selling superb (and well-named) blends like 'Big Blend of Texas,’ ‘West Texas Wildfire,’ and ‘Texpresso’. Get a cup at Frama or Squeeze, or pickup a bag from the roaster directly.
Before you go or while you’re there
I Love Dick - an Amazon Original TV Series adapted from a feminist novel of the same name. It’s set in Marfa and stars Kathryn Hahn and Kevin Bacon, the latter's character is loosely based on Donald Judd. It’s so good we finished Season 1 in a day and it was fun to visit all of the locations subtly featured in the show.
Marfa Public Radio - beloved local radio station broadcasting from the main part of town. Tune in online or at 93.5 FM for talk and music.
Big Bend Now - online home of local newspaper, The Big Bend Sentinel
Marfa List - the town’s online message board. It’s active and a good resource for events/gatherings/happenings and food (what’s open, when).