For many years the 1956 movie, Giant, which co-starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Dennis Hopper, was just about the only thing the West Texas town of Marfa was known for.
That, and the Marfa Lights – the Texan version of the Aurora Borealis. Often called “ghost lights” attributed to paranormal phenomenon, research shows that the majority of the mysterious nocturnal lights are reflections of car headlamps, campfires or satellites. People came from far away to witness the elusive and luminous nightsky show, against the backdrop of what remained of the Reata façade from the movie set, crumbling slowly into the West Texas dust.
But in the past decade or so, a new crowd of folks has discovered Marfa. Artists, poets, writers and filmmakers began flocking to the town near Big Bend National Park, situated on a high plateau of the Chihuahuan Desert surrounded by three mountain ranges. The Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and the oil prospecting epic There Will Be Blood again put Marfa back on the cinematic map.
Today, between the many festivals and events happening in Marfa, unique art installations, and its famous (or semi-famous) residents and visitors, Marfa is a little too rebellious and rough-around-the-edges to quite become completely hipster. Its residents and visitors like that just fine; Marfa never tried to reinvent or market itself. Its cool, artsy appeal just happened, organically. A few of the reasons to make the long, dusty drive here include:
Marfa Film Festival: There are no first-place prizes, and no winners. Instead, the Marfa Film Festival is a retreat showing remarkable cinematic work that is far away from the chaotic and competitive environments that can be found on the film festival circuit. There are screenings out on the prairie at night, showing more than 50 features, shorts, music videos and experimental works; and marching bands may roam the streets at any given time.
Art Galleries: The arts scene started in Marfa back in the 70s, when acclaimed minimalist artist Donald Judd arrived from New York City to escape the art scene he claimed to disdain. With the help of the DIA Foundation, Judd acquired an entire Army base that he filled with art before he died in 1994. Some of the art scene highlights include cultural nonprofit foundations such as Chinati and Ballroom Marfa, and a score of quality art galleries. Then there are the bigger-than-life installations like the fake Prada store that sits on the outskirts of town; and the brand new Playboy bunny sculpture.
Marfa Lights Festival: For more than a quarter of a century this festival has happened every Labor Day weekend at the Presidio County Courthouse, with food and craft vendors, live music and street dances. And of course, the star of the show – the mysterious haunting lights which have drawn visitors for decades.
Hiking and Outdoors Adventures: If all this isn’t enough to keep you occupied, the natural wonder of the Big Bend area is sure to enthrall. Many a hiker has succumbed to the challenges and charms of Big Bend National Park and its “splendid isolation.” The canyon colors, bird species, cactus formations and solitary splendor creates a magical place for hiking and camping.There are three campground areas available, where visitors can stay up to 14 consecutive nights. There is also an RV campground with full hook-ups available. Big Bend is a hiker's paradise containing the largest expanse of roadless public lands in Texas.
Eating and Partying: And when it’s all said and done at the end of the day, no such place as Marfa that attracts creative types would be without a few watering holes and evening diversions. Reata Restaurant, aptly named after the movie Giant’s estate home, is located a few miles away in Alpine and is an offshoot of its renowned sister restaurant in Fort Worth. Padre’s is another Marfa original, and favorite, housed in a beautifully renovated 100-year-old adobe building that has had many past lives including, most recently, a funeral home. The bar was crafted from salvaged original hardwood flooring from the building, and is the best live-music venue in Marfa.
Cochineal and Austin Street Café both serve up top-notch food in the casually elegant ambience that Marfa is famous for. You won’t find anything too fancy here, but this is as close as it gets. Cochineal is an informal 30-seat dining room serving homemade comfort food using fresh ingredients from its own garden, and boasting an extensive wine list. Austin Street Café, in a restored 1885 adobe house formerly owned by the artist Donald Judd, serves a delectable brunch, along with the specialty cakes and pastries they are famous for.
Shelley Seale is a freelance journalist and author based in Austin, Texas