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 welcome, and those who have some different Marfa in mind have more or less been sent packing. The dozens of artists who have congregated here in recent years conduct themselves less like cultural arbiters and more like monks, bent on laboring in silence and otherwise treading lightly, reverently on their magnificent desert canvas.
NO TOWN SO REFLEXIVELY EVOKES the undying splendor of West Texas like Marfa. Set at a safe remove from what would become the Big Bend touring axis, blessed by wealthy ranchers who bestowed on it ornate architectural touches, and protected from sprawl by the self-same ranchers whose acreage girdles the town, Marfa today retains the glimmer of proud remoteness that is central to the Texas myth. The same cannot be said about neighboring Alpine, with its rash of franchise restaurants and its Santa Fe (or at least Fredericksburg) pretensions. Another thirty miles or so eastward lies Marathon, itself dustily alluring, but the town’s ethos and economic survival owe themselves to the Gage Hotel, also designed by the great Trost. Meanwhile, Marfa’s Trost masterpiece, the El Paisano Hotel—built in 1927 and recognizable to viewers of Giant—has slowly gone to seed, thanks to its much-reviled out-of-state owner and its surly management. Marfans lament the demise of the Paisano, as they do the closing of the 75-year-old Borunda Cafe, said to be the oldest Tex-Mex cafe in the state before shutting down in 1985. But Marfa needs neither institution to remain Marfa.
By all rights, Marfa should be a ghost town. Founded in 1883 as a water stop and freight headquarters for the Galves-ton, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway (and named by a railroad executive’s wife after the willful Marfa in Fëdor Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov), the town was a desert rose nurtured by a series of benefactors. Chief among these were the cattle ranchers, whose names are still legend here: Mitchell, Brite, Jones. They raised their livestock miles away but came to Marfa to spend their money and commissioned lavish town dwellings where their children would reside with governesses during the school year. Practically all of these houses have been sold out of the families or are tied up in trusts. Still, they are astonishing visions, like the boastfully broad main street, Highland, and the looming stucco Presidio County Courthouse, in which the cattle barons threw sumptuous balls, well within earshot of the felons who languished in the jailhouse just across the square.
Marfa must have felt as invincible as it looked in those days, before the Depression dropped the trapdoor on the cattle market. President Hoover saved the town from economic disaster by establishing an Army garrison, Fort D. A. Russell, on the grounds of the temporary post Camp Marfa. During World War II the fort was also used as a POW camp. Soon after the war’s end, however, the encampments were abandoned, one drought after another befell the region, and the sheen of Marfa began to give way to an advancing decrepitude. Only when Warner Bros. brought Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean to town in 1955 to film the instant classic Giant did Marfans enjoy a respite from decline. Old-timers still talk dreamily of that year, when hundreds of them became extras and were privy to Hudson’s courtliness, Dean’s shyness, and Taylor’s haughtiness. But the filming of Giant was less a defining moment than a quick snapshot for a town that, even in the worst of times, had held on to its sense of self. Marfa does not gaudily proffer its brief courtship with the movies on billboards or street signs. Marfa was Giant country before Hollywood came, and it would remain so long after Hollywood left.
IS IT SO IMPROBABLE THAT MARFA’S latest savior would be a minimalist sculptor named Donald Judd? As a young man Judd had seen the expanse around Marfa through the window of a California-bound bus. It was 1946, a year when Marfa still had plenty of sass, but Judd didn’t care about that. He saw in Marfa the majesty of its remoteness. When he relocated from New York in 1971, downtown Marfa looked hollow and beaten. One by one, the sculptor bought and restored more than a dozen buildings—which otherwise, as one longtime resident told me, “would have gone to wrack and ruin.” The somewhat reclusive Judd (who died of lymphoma in 1994) was not of the ranchers, but his pioneering spirit was a throwback virtue they had to appreciate.
Though Judd did not tamper with the essential core of Marfa, he added his own dimension, one which was not to the liking of all. There was the Chinati Foundation with its stunning but esoteric sculptures installed at the old Fort Russell. There was the entire block Judd purchased and immediately walled off from public view. And today, grumbles one local, “There’s all those downtown buildings that aren’t anything more than a paean to a dead man.” Less aesthetically intrusive to some, but still difficult to overlook, is the growing number of U.S. Border Patrol employees stationed here. The agency is now the town’s biggest employer—meaning the town owes much of its economic stability, at least indirectly, to illegal immigration and the drug trade.
I asked Lee Bennett, a ranching woman who has lived in Marfa for nearly seventy years, whether she found these encroachments disquieting. Pshawing me, she said, “You’re holding on to the idea that we’re still a ranching town. Yes, some of the ranches are still in the families, but a lot of the new owners come from places outside of Marfa, like New York or Germany. No, we’re lucky to have these people from the Border Patrol—they have good community values. And as for Judd, there’ll always be those who hate change. He brought a lot of it, and I don’t feel we’ve felt the full impact of his influence yet. But …” and then she laughed dismissively, as if to say, What, really, could change Marfa in the end?
At least that’s my impression every time I visit. Marfa remains the only town in West Texas that is, quite simply, a sight to behold. With its absence of a “dining experience” and with the Paisano in its current glum state, Marfa is not a destination in the way that the tourist industry has come to define the term. I, for one, don’t care. Especially every time I take the quarter-mile stroll up Highland, flanked by those faded storefronts, turn my back to the Italianate courthouse, and watch Marfa spill out into the hard beauty of the desert. For those seeking a primer on the allure of the West, that vantage point is as eloquent as any sunset.