Toast of the Town
At the end of the night, Marfa’s ranchers, tourists, artists, and newbies end up at one place: the Lost Horse Saloon.
The red neon sign outside the Lost Horse Saloon says, simply, “Beer.” The Lost Horse is long and L-shaped, and most of the time, its interior is dim as a cave. Three pool tables are on the right, just inside the front door. A bench runs the length of the opposite wall. There are a few Formica-topped tables and metal chairs. Deer mounts, dusty pieces of tack, and a sign reading “No working during drinking hours” hang on the walls. The bar’s counter is a former shuffleboard table, and behind the hardworking barmaid is a large antique mirror, as in a western movie. The bar stools are a mismatched lineup of wood and vinyl seats that don’t benefit from close inspection. A lone spittoon squats on the footrest below.
Marfa now claims a range of drinking establishments, from ritzy to quirky, but the Lost Horse is where we usually end up. My family started coming here a couple of decades and a couple of owners ago, back when this place was Lucy’s Tavern. After Lucy’s came the era of Joe’s Place—lots of cumbia in those days—and since 2010, it’s been the Lost Horse. In each incarnation, this bar has been a dive. I say that with affection, and with some apology to my friends who have owned or run the place over the years. But it’s true. It’s always been a little rough looking. Not many windows. Dark.
“The outside of this place is intimidating, I know,” Ty Mitchell, the current proprietor, said while sitting on the bar’s deck out back. “Every once in a while I pretend I’ve never been to Marfa and see it and I think, ‘I oughta clean that up a bit.’ ”
“No,” howled a nearby patron, who’d overheard. “It’s part of the charm! All the bottle caps on the ground in the parking lot! The bullet-riddled truck out front! Don’t change anything!”
Ty is fifty years old and a natural rambler. “Mama said I was born under a wandering star,” he said, “and she and my dad never fought it.” As a teenager he decamped from Lockhart to a cowboying gig in Balmorhea, then left footprints on every continent but two, much of that travel taking place during a stint in the Navy. Over the years, he’s farmed, carpentered, worked as a roughneck, fought oil-field fires, acted, and day-worked on ranches. About a decade ago, a divorce brought him to Marfa, where he picked up some contracting work. He eventually transitioned to bar owner, and so far it’s stuck.
Ty’s face is deeply, impressively lined, with a brushy chestnut mustache that cascades toward his chin. A leather eye patch rather dashingly covers his bum right eye; the twinkle or blaze of his left eye indicates amusement or anger. He is tall, skinny, and angular. He is bareheaded only for the moment it takes to tip his black felt hat when he’s introduced to a woman. In old waddy fashion, he wears Levi’s cuffed above his boots and a gray vest over a snap shirt. His cigarettes are hand-rolled. The most common question he fields is “Are you a real cowboy?”
There is one rule at the Lost Horse. Well, two. The first, according to Ty, is to have fun. The second is to behave. I’ve never seen any shenanigans in the bar, but evidently shenanigans have happened. “There ain’t gonna be but one intimidating SOB in this bar, and that’s me,” Ty said. “Used to be, when we first opened, I had to go to the floor three times in a week, but now, never, because everybody knows the rules.”
And so it goes. Ranchers, punks, elected officials, teachers, city workers, weirdos, tourists, artists, and misanthropes frequent the Lost Horse on any given night. The place is a hodgepodge, a goofy success, both homey and welcoming but also a little unpredictable. “My main goal was to make sure that the fifth-generation Marfans, the cowboys, the tourists, and the newbie locals could all come and, by God, talk to one another,” Ty said. “To me, talking with someone who’s from a country you’ve never heard of or to someone who’s gay or someone with political views the opposite of yours, you can learn something and for damn sure enjoy it. That’s the kind of bar I wanted. Good things come from that.”
Lone Star and Hornitos are best-sellers, along with a concoction of tequila, fizzy water, lime, salt, and ice known locally as ranch water. The place isn’t totally about drinking, though. All manner of happenings go on at the Lost Horse. Hometown comedy events, poetry readings, and rap, punk, and country shows all occur, plus an open mic night during which, once, The xx, a black-clad, apparently famous British indie trio, tried out new songs. Other events have included a lip-synched tribute to Queen, baffling performance-dance offerings, and, for the past two Super Bowls, a motley jam band that played a live, improvised score for the entire game.
“There’s stuff goes on here that I can’t stand that people enjoy,” Ty said. “I allow that, and they allow me my country nights.”
On those evenings, cowboys roll in and Ty gets to two-step with his wife, Astrid Rosenfeld, a German romance novelist he met four years ago when she stopped at the Lost Horse during a road trip across the U.S. A recent birthday celebration evolved into one of those whooped-up, dance-filled nights, culminating in the celebrant riding his horse into the bar. How often does that happen, a horse in the bar?
“Oh, I can’t count that high,” said Ty. “The first horse my wife ever got on was in this saloon.” He has some advice, though, for patrons who encounter a horse in their midst: “Never give another man’s horse a beer. That’s his horse—don’t try to educate another man’s animals.”
A few Novembers ago, the Big Bend shook under an ice storm that took out power across the region. It was achingly cold, too icy for travel. Nearly everyone was without heat, water, or electricity for several days. One night, driven by cabin fever, we crept around town marveling at Marfa’s velvety blackness, the blocks of silent, lightless houses. And then, turning onto the highway, we saw a single light, the only light in the whole town, the saloon’s red-neon “Beer” burning brightly in the gloom. We went, of course, and crammed inside were half of Marfa, a bunch of tourists, and a dozen dogs. Ty and his brother, who had contrived to find generators, had pulled food from their lifeless refrigerators and made chili, corn bread, beans. The place brimmed with life and light: teenagers working geometry problems together, folks dancing, hungry kids chowing down, people playing card games and dominos, laughter everywhere, dogs snaking through legs, and everyone talking, talking, talking.
Friends of my parents, brand-new visitors to Marfa, were marooned at a hotel that night. We recognized them when four gray-haired people walked hesitantly into the bar. Within minutes, they were part of the gang, making friends, teaching our son to play pool, eating until they were full. At closing time they were sent content and mirthful back into the frigid darkness.
“That was a good night,” Ty recalled. “This horrific storm knocked out power for a thousand square miles, but you could take your jacket off in here, find comfort in warmth, and know that although Mother Nature is doing her damnedest outside, you’re as safe as though you were in your mother’s arms.”
Perhaps it’s that sense of safety that allows people at the Lost Horse to say things they don’t say elsewhere. Not the flirty stuff or drunken nonsense but an expression of real feeling that doesn’t come out in, say, an encounter at the grocery or the gym. Not long ago, while I was catching up with an old friend at the Lost Horse, an acquaintance spotted us and sailed over.
“Well,” he announced, “I had a bad day.”
Our acquaintance swung the chair around so he could straddle it backward. His horse had gone lame that morning, he said, and he’d had to walk afoot back to the trailer. A complicated issue involving shipping cattle arose in the afternoon, and uncharacteristically, he lost his temper with a colleague, which he regretted. “Some days don’t go right,” he said. “My wife doesn’t want me home until I turn things around, and that’s why I’m sitting with you now.” We commiserated and listened, and when our round was done, we all stood to go. “I believe I feel better,” he announced before peeling off.
Ty maintains that bars’ peculiar social qualities make them among the world’s important institutions, places to gather and get things done. His place is no different. “If something happens, you can go to the beer hall and talk about it,” he said. “By the next morning, it’s worked out. Children are created, marriages are born and lost, and governments have fallen because of beer halls. It’s where we do some of our finest work and some of our dirtiest deeds. And I’m the one sitting right in the middle.”