IT SEEMED AT FIRST A RATHER LORDLY DESTINY: to sit on the northern crest of Marfa, on the porch of a salmon stucco home designed in the twenties by the brilliant El Paso architect Henry Trost, and survey the sun’s glorious crash onto the mighty West Texas desert. But as I lingered there with my dinner hosts, watching the torrid sky play with the exotic Marfa plateau, my smugness gave way to humility—and eventually, as the evening redness deepened, to a feeling of sheer puniness. My hosts sat quietly throughout. They’d been in Marfa long enough to measure themselves against their environs. They already knew what I was just grasping: One does not come out here with conquest in mind.
From that porch this summer I could see for miles. To the north, 21 miles away, Fort Davis still trembled from the springtime Republic of Texas standoff. About 80 miles to the south, tiny Redford remained up in arms over the shooting in May of an eighteen-year-old local goatherd by a U.S. Marine. Twenty-six miles eastward, in Alpine, the town buzzed alternately about a gang rape allegedly committed by a pack of local boys and the breakup of The Bridges of Madison County author Robert James Waller’s marriage on account of a local woman (see Reporter: “Low Talk,” page 21). Off to the west, Sierra Blanca seethed over its apparent destiny as a nuclear dump site. Meanwhile, Marfa basked under the oxblood sunset, content with its inertia.
In fact, change had seeped into Marfa too, but I didn’t have to crane my neck to find it. My dinner hosts at the old Trost house, Maiya Keck and Joey Benton, were graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design who had moved here less than three years ago. Benton is a sculptor who designs and builds contemporary furniture, and Keck helps manage the estate of the renowned minimalist artist Donald Judd, whose arrival in Marfa in the early seventies began what is now a steady stream of artistic immigration. Today a stroll through this isolated West Texas town guarantees an encounter with East Coast, German, and French accents.
Most locals aren’t too concerned. Marfa is accustomed to strange incursions, from Elizabeth Taylor sashaying along the courthouse square during the filming of Giant and German POWs bunking in hangars out in the desert to those inexplicable Marfa lights flickering in the hills night after night. The epic character of Marfa (population: 2,515, about what it has been for the past several decades) was inscribed into it many years ago; the town is not shopping for an identity or a makeover. Anyone who cares about Marfa is made to feel