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A small West Texas town known for its art community and "mystery lights".

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Marfa: Go for the Mystery Lights, Stay for Everything Else!

  • Sep 10, 2009
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Marfa: A small town in far west Texas. Three hours to the nearest Sam's Club, or an eight hour drive to the nearest Ikea. No chain restaurants, no hotel chains. No room service.

Who knew that in the "middle of nowhere", one would find big art. I mean BIG. And really great food. As in French and Meditterenean, and an excellent thin crust pizza?

Many people, even Texans, have never heard of Marfa. After all, this tiny town of 2,200 residents is a long drive from any metropolis, any major airport (although Marfa Municipal Airport is just outside of town). It was originally a water stop for the railroad, and that rail line still runs through the center of town with freight trains passing through several times a day (and night).

When David got a week off on short notice, I rented a little privately owned one bedroom adobe "casita" in Marfa, and off we went with our bicycles strapped to the back of the car.

Marfa is about a nine hour drive from the Dallas area, so we left early in the morning and arrived late afternoon. The drive is a bit of a beating, but there are opportunities to stop along the way if one is not in a hurry.

The last sixty miles or so are south of I-10, and the view here makes the whole drive worth it. The gorgeous hills and greenery when mixed with the majestic lava formations are a breathtaking change from most of flat Texas.

Arriving in Marfa, one of the first things I noticed is that there are a lot of run-down places. After all, everything in the town is pretty old. Yet once we got out and about, we realized it is a very safe place. Marfa respects the old adobes, and even the most run-down, roofless structure is fair game for renovation. The richest people live amongst the poorest, and everyone waves. We rode our bicycles everywhere in town with no fear.

Marfa Art:
The town has a huge minimalist art presence. There are a series of art installations at the Chinati Foundation, founded by Donald Judd. The collection includes Judd's 100 Untitled Works in Milled Aluminum, housed in two World War II artillery sheds.

Also on the grounds is the fascinating Ilya Kabakov's School No. 6, a portrayal of an abandoned schoolhouse in the Soviet Union, where "bookcases and desks with Russian notebooks and memorabilia scattered throughout the disordered classrooms tell an elliptical story about another place and time. The walls are painted an institutional green, which is peeling. In the center of the building is a courtyard overgrown with grass and weeds." As we entered this installation, we were reminded that every aspect was intentional, from the papers strewn about the floors, to the dust on the glass cases.

The Chinati Foundation is a surprise to many who think of Marfa as just a train stop or the location of the Marfa Mystery Lights.

In addition to the Chinati Foundation, there are quite a few galleries in town. These include:
Ballroom Marfa
Galleri Urbane

Don't forget to visit Prada Marfa, an art installation just west of even tinier Valentine, Texas, west of Marfa on Hwy 90.

Travel to Marfa:
Here is a fantastic article on Marfa from New York Magazine's travel section. Although it is from 2006, it is still relevant today.

Food in Marfa:
Marfa has some fantastic restaurants. In fact, the food in this town is impressive.

Food Shark is a catering truck that operates Tuesday through Friday "and some Saturdays", lunch only, under the pavilion adjacent to the the railroad tracks. Regulars and tourists alike line up for Food Shark lunches every day. Food Shark has been featured in Bon Apetit magazine, Food & Wine, and many other publications. Check out the press section of Food Shark's blog, and check out YouTube videos of Food Shark like this commercial, and this video.

Pizza Foundation is home to some fantastic New York thin crust pizza. BYOB ($5 corkage) or buy a bottle of theirs, but do try the tomato bread salad (tomato, warm homemade croutons, feta, basil, onion, roasted garlic and balsamic vinaigrette). Prepare to share your outside table with others who will tell you what you already know: Pizza Foundation is great. Oh, and two people can easily "make do" with a half pizza.

Maiya's is another Marfa fine dining favorite, salads with figs, and you must try the corn cup (a tamale in a cup, of sorts). Reservations are strongly suggested, especially during festivals.

Ah, Cochineal, Marfa's fine French restaurant... we started with crisply fried goat cheese served with baby greens grown in the restaurant's garden, drizzled with balsamic vinegar. I had the boneless pepper crusted pork loin with mustard/sage cream over a puree of butternut squash with garlicky broccoli rabe. Oh, and we preordered the date pudding with cream, and David had the vanilla pot de creme. Cochineal also serves breakfast from 8:00 a.m. - noon Friday through Thursday.

Eat at Tacos Del Norte on the west side of town, if you get an opportunity. Delicious tacos on corn tortilla with cilantro and onion, or however you like them, and a spicy delicious salsa are worth the three minute drive (they are across from El Cheapo Liquor). Speedy Gonzales has even allowed his likeliness to be used at this establishment, wink.

Shopping in Marfa:Basically there are three options for groceries and basics:
  • Pueblo Market: A small independent market. I went in once, but they didn't seem to have what I wanted, a comb and some disposable razors.
  • Dollar General: Just like every other Dollar General on the face of the earth, but in the case of Marfa, since there are limited other shopping options, you might find some cool people in this location.
  • The Get Go: Now this is the small, yet surprisingly fantastic grocery store in this little town. The  Get Go has a large selection of fine wines from all over the world, as well as fresh organic produce, organic cleaners, a large selection of energy bars, dairy products and eggs, breads, ice cream, and if they don't have it now, you can add it to the request list.
For liquor, purchases, The Get Go has wine (perhaps beer, I am not sure), and for the hard stuff, try El Cheapo Liquor at the other end of town (like a three minute drive down San Antonio Street).

Marfa Mystery Lights:
The Marfa Mystery Lights are an unexplained series of colored lights that are visible in the distance towards the Chinati Mountains on clear nights. There are many theories as to what the lights are, from UFOs to car headlights coming off the distant mountains. Whatever they are, they apparently merit a substantial new viewing center on Highway 90 which runs between Marfa and Alpine. We went out to the viewing center only one night, and did not see the lights. We did, however, meet people who had seen the lights.

Beyond all the above loveliness, Marfa is a bike friendly town. The streets are wide, and there is only one stopsign in the middle of the town.

What would make Marfa better? Make it about five hours closer to Dallas. Seriously, that is this town's only negative.

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From Wikipedia for Marfa, Texas:

Marfa is the county seat of Presidio County in the high desert of far West Texas. The population was 2,121 at the2000 census and its zip code is 79843.

Marfa was founded in the early 1880s as a railroad water stop, and grew quickly through the 1920s. Marfa Army Airfield (Fort D.A. Russell) was located east of the town during World War II and trained several thousand pilots before closing in 1945 (the abandoned site is still visible ten miles east of the city).

Today Marfa is a tourist destination, located between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park. Attractions include the historical architecture and classic Texas town square, modern art, soaring, and the Marfa lights.

Marfa is located at 30°18′43″N 104°1′29″W / 30.31194°N 104.02472°W / 30.31194; -104.02472 (30.311863, -104.024779).

According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 1.6 square miles, all of it land. It is a small city.

Marfa may be most famous for the Marfa lights, visible every clear night between Marfa and the Paisano Pass when one is facing southwest (toward the Chinati Mountains). According to the Handbook of Texas Online, "...at times they appear colored as they twinkle in the distance. They move about, split apart, melt together, disappear, and reappear. Presidio County residents have watched the lights for over a hundred years. The first historical record of them recalls that in ...

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Travel, Art, Texas, Road Trip, Ufo, Big Bend, Food Shark, Marfa Lights, Marfa, Chinati, Donald Judd, West Texas, Texas Towns, Glider, Mystery Lights


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