Four years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, the iconic red signage of big box store Target appeared on a tiny structure alongside a West Texas highway, surrounded by nothing but desert as far as the eye can see. On Thursday, December 10, it disappeared just as suddenly as it had come, the building reduced to a pile of rubble. Shock, sadness, and a thirst for vengeance rippled through social media, along with theories about the landmark’s demise—many suspected vandals, fewer a “government job,” and at least one suggested (perhaps jokingly) “antifa.” What became clear was that the mysterious little roadside attraction would be sorely missed.
“We loved it, definitely loved it,” said Ingrid Voelkel, a ten-year resident of Marathon who runs the town’s La Loma del Chivo hostel, when reached by phone. “Marfa has its Prada, we had our Target.”
“Target Marathon”—located roughly midway on the thirty-mile stretch of U.S. 90 between the small town of Alpine and the even smaller town of Marathon, in the unincorporated community of Altuda—had become a popular stopping place for tourists to the Big Bend region thanks to its Instagram-worthiness. Visitors would pull off onto the highway’s thin, precarious shoulder to strike jubilant poses and climb into an (equally mysterious) accompanying red shopping cart. Searching the “Target Marathon” location tag on Instagram unfurls an endless scroll of these photos; the hashtag #targetmarathon yields over a thousand results. But the overwhelming response to the demolition showed that, even if some saw it as little more than a burdensome tourist trap, it had been more than that—it had held a special place in the hearts of many locals, who saw it as a witty, understated response to the glamorous Prada Marfa installation standing eighty miles west down the highway.
“It was funny, it was tongue-in-cheek, it was a one-liner kind of thing,” said artist and photographer E. Dan Klepper, who runs a small gallery in Marathon, his home of twenty years. “It was a spoof on the Prada, of course, and that was kind of funny.” This is a shared understanding among locals, though the true intention behind its creation remains a mystery. While the Prada Marfa stands as highbrow, moneyed commentary on consumerism, stocked with real designer handbags and armed with a security system, the ramshackle railroad structure slapped with a Target logo like an afterthought served as its sillier, more accessible (and theoretically affordable) counterpart.
In short, the tourists had their photo shoots, but the locals had their laughs, and now it seems the joke is dead. “Tearing it down seems like nothing but curmudgeonry,” said Marathon resident Samuel Stavinoha, standing outside the general store he maintains, French Company Grocer, the Sunday after the demolition. “We have enough curmudgeons out here—we need all the laughs we can get.” Stavinoha even predicted that if the demolition had been announced in advance, locals would have vehemently protested. But it’s too late now: a bulldozer finished the job the following Tuesday, erasing even the splintered letters that had stood out in the rubble.
In a way, curmudgeonry did bring down Target Marathon—the killjoy reality of legal concerns ultimately prompted the landowners to demolish the unregulated, increasingly unstable structure. At least, that’s according to Brewster County sheriff Ronny Dodson (the landowners themselves, A.S. Gage Ranches Partnership, have remained silent on the matter, and did not return a call from Texas Monthly). “It was starting to get dangerous,” said Dodson. “There were bees and wasps and stuff in it … people were stealing bricks and vandalizing.” At one point, he said, the landowners erected “No Trespassing” signs in an attempt to stop the frivolity on their private land. “Within thirty minutes [visitors] had torn them all down.”
For years, said Dodson, it was unclear who was even responsible for the structure. There was a prolonged back-and-forth between Union Pacific Railroad, which operates the nearby tracks, and the ranching company. The dispute was resolved only last year, when the ranch confirmed ownership. At that point, concerns around liability started to grow. Dodson’s office, meanwhile, had received a few complaints over the years about people standing in the road to snap photos—another safety concern.
Though some took it upon themselves to maintain the building—it had just received a fresh coat of paint a month ago—locals confirmed that missing bricks, swarms of bees, and even rattlesnakes could all be part of the Target Marathon experience. Photos posted to social media show that at the time it was demolished, the building was riddled with bullet holes and missing a sizable chunk of its front-facing exterior. Still, some can’t help but wonder if demolition was the only way—maybe it could have been repaired, and maybe a designated place for cars to park could have alleviated traffic safety concerns.
“In an ideal world, it would have been fun to keep it and make it more safe for traffic to pull over,” said Shawna Marie Graves, a resident of Terlingua who manages social media for the Marathon Chamber of Commerce. Now Graves hopes to see a new fixture spring up that could serve a similar purpose—provide a stopping place for tourists and represent the “good-natured prankster” spirit she associates with Marathon. “It’s not just a tourist attraction, but it’s an opportunity for the area to express itself and claim its culture, and say ‘This is who we are.’”
Still, even in its absence, the prankster spirit of Target Marathon lives on. On social media, humorous tributes have flooded in to fill the void. Cypress-based photographer Andy Bulgerin edited a photo of the Target to make it look like a nineteenth-century relic; “Sad to lose such a Historic [sic] structure,” he posted to Facebook. Minneapolis artist Mark Shoening created a Snapchat filter that allows users to pose with a virtual replica of the mini Target. One Facebook user shared a gingerbread tribute.
And in Marathon, a physical remnant has surfaced. The Sunday after the demolition, the red shopping cart that had accompanied the building appeared outside the Marathon Public Library with an unsigned handwritten note attached: “There was one lone survivor of the savage attack at the Altuda Target in Dec. 2020. This shopping cart fled for its life to the sanctuary of the historical museum in Marathon, TX. May the only Target in 100 mi. R.I.P.” Maybe the joke is not dead after all.