WHEN THE EARLY COWBOYS and ranchers got their first good look at the Marfa Plateau—the rich grasslands 4,830 feet above the desert, surrounded by far-off mountains and domed by a vast sky that made them feel both grand and puny at the same time—you'd like to think they were struck gloriously dumb. To be precise, you'd like to think they reacted as F. Scott Fitzgerald imagined the seventeenth-century Dutch sailors did when they came upon the American shore. "[F]or a transitory enchanted moment," Fitzgerald famously wrote in The Great Gatsby , "man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent . . . face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."Realtor Michael McGraw, who discovered Marfa for himself in 2004, says he knows all about that feeling: "The moment I got to Marfa, I said, 'This is going to be the next hot spot. And I want to be part of it.'" McGraw, a former Las Vegas restaurateur (he was the general manager of Spago and the Coyote Cafe), came to Marfa with his partner, Kimberly Newman, for an art opening in April; two days later they bought an old 3,200-square-foot Army quartermaster's building and are now converting it into a boutique salon and day spa. It will be called the Lucky Star. "I've never been so excited about anything in my life," he says.
McGraw is not alone. A century after the cowboys and ranchers moved in on the local Tejanos, Apaches, and Comanches, a new breed of excitable invaders has arrived, this one made up of, among others, Hollywood fashion arbiters, the granddaughters of Texas ranchers, New York art-world youngsters, and Houston superlawyers. Many of them are friends who have bought second homes and who come here to get away, even if it's just for the weekend. They congregate at the Marfa Book Company, on the main north-south road, Highland Avenue, sip protein drinks, and enthusiastically talk of the old adobe houses they've recently bought and how exhilarating it is to strip away the layers of paneling and muck on the walls, almost as if it were a process of self-discovery. Then they walk up Highland, toward the majestic Presidio County courthouse, past the locals filing into the post office (there's no home delivery in Marfa, population: 2,500), past the new art galleries and shops in the gorgeous old downtown buildings, many built eighty years ago. They drink Venetian spritzes and eat rib-eye steaks and roasted-asparagus pasta at Maiya's, on white tablecloths. Those who haven't bought a place just yet stay at the gloriously redone Hotel Paisano, where Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor hung out during the filming of Giant almost fifty years ago.
"There's something magical about the town," says Nina Garduno, a vice president of Ron Herman/Fred Segal in Hollywood who is building a fourplex of businesses in town. "I feel like all things are possible there." Indeed, right now you can get a $2.50 latte, a $28 steak, a $120 room, and the Sunday New York Times —on Sunday morning. If you had visited at various times this past year, you could have gone to a gallery and danced to a two-piece rock band from Berlin or waded into a room stuffed head-high with red balloons. Soon, on San Antonio Street, the town's main east-west road, you'll be able to buy a thong, rent a skateboard, get your hair highlighted by a noted Hollywood colorist, and sip a cool mojito around a lush garden that was once an old forties motor court—while your kid goes to the new Montessori school.
A motto on a sign on the outskirts of town, raised by the chamber of commerce in 1996, reads "Marfa is what the West was." That is so twentieth century. The fact is, the ranching industry was moribund back then, and Marfa was on the verge of joining some of its neighbors as a ghost town. Now that the new Marfans have arrived, a more apt motto is one you hear a lot these days on the streets and in the galleries, uttered with both excitement and dread: "Marfa is the new Santa Fe." And Palm Springs, home of the jet set. And Greenwich Village, home of the bohemian. And, for that matter, Gatsby's East Egg, where the wealthy fled the mundane world. In truth, no one really knows what Marfa is yet. Because every day, more people come, bringing their money, their energy, and their ideas of what the town should be. Residents of the old Marfa—retired ranchers, Border Patrol officers, and poor and working-class Mexican Americans—sit back and watch, usually with amusement. They've seen artist types before, the gloomy Germans and the serious New Yorkers who have been making pilgrimages to Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation since the mid-eighties. But this is different. The Chinati has always been elitist and distant—like PBS. This new scene is loud, funny, weird—like HBO. If Marfa were a series, it would be called How the West Was Won . The answer: good coffee, boisterous art, and lots and lots of money.
"THIS IS THE FIRST HOME we sold to Donald Judd," said Valda Livingston, a cheerful sixty-something-year-old realtor, driving her white Lexus SUV down a quiet street on the northern side of Marfa and pointing. "A couple from Santa Fe are going to turn it into a tearoom and possibly a B&B." A few doors down, she said, "I just sold this to some people from Massachusetts." A moment later she added, "I just sold this to a lady from Baltimore who is a writer and a poet." As she drove, Livingston mentioned other recent clients: Houston defense attorney Dick DeGuerin; former Tyco CEO John Fort; Lewis Saul, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who's opening a Greek restaurant; and Harry and Shelley Hudson, a Dallas couple who are converting the abandoned bus terminal into a large adobe home. After decades of rural decay, during which