Richard West grew up among the tony homes and manicured lawns of upscale Highland Park, but he had a restless spirit and a determination to understand Texas in all its vastness and complexity. After graduating from UT, serving in the Army, and working as press secretary for Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes, West joined Texas Monthly in 1972, just a few months before the launch of its inaugural issue in February 1973. Soon he was on the road three weeks out of the month. West crisscrossed the state for two years, filing dispatches from far-flung and near-flung corners for the magazine. In his travels, West found Texas in metamorphosis from rural to urban—a transformation that left him uneasy. He wanted to do something more than “hummingbird journalism,” dipping in and out of a place. So he pitched editor in chief Bill Broyles on a dream assignment: over the course of three years, he would spend two months in seven different—very different—locales in search of the “real” Texas. Broyles said yes. Three of the stories in the series won the National Magazine Award under the title In Search of Rural America. West’s first destination: a dusty little West Texas town named Marfa.
West arrived in August 1975 and stayed for two months. Every morning, he would leave his apartment above a hardware store on Main Street and join the regulars for breakfast at a cafe on U.S. 90. What he found in Marfa, and surrounding Presidio County, in 1977 was a Texas not much changed from 1885. It’s right there in the subhead—“What Texas once was, Marfa still is.” West’s 13,000-word immersive portrait of life in Marfa is an astonishment to anyone who has visited in, oh, the past twenty years. Instead of art galleries, hipsters, and pricey Airbnbs, the Marfa of the mid-seventies was still an earthy, rugged farm-and-ranch town not connected to Texas’s big cities, much less to L.A. and New York. In an email, West, who is eighty and has lived in Amsterdam with his wife since 2013, says he couldn’t have imagined the new Marfa in his “most deranged imagination.” He’s not a fan. “The Beyoncé nonsense: at best a kind of insouciance, at worst silly hippitude. What next, tomato basil ice cream?”