Marfa: Intrigue And Art In The Desert Of Southwest Texas

Marfa was a place suggested to me by several people I met along my trip. After reading a little about it and seeing a few pictures, I found there was a certain intrigue and mystery about it, so I made it my next destination after Austin on the way to El Paso. Simply put, it’s a small city in the middle of the desert in southwest Texas, and has been growing as a tourist destination since the late 70s.

1 PANO_20160615_202928One of the things everyone goes to see is the Marfa Lights, which are mysterious light orbs sometimes scene in the distance (looking south toward the Chinati Mtns.) that move & behave strangely- similar to Brown Mtn. lights in NC; they also go for the art scene featuring mostly minimalist styles, the scenery, and, of course the food.

If you like to eat, there’s a great offering. A grilled cheese parlor, a few fine dining spots, a lady that cooks burritos from her house, and a handful of other places in between. The only chains I recall are Dairy Queen and a dollar store. No Starbucks. No Walmart.

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I spent my first night here (although when I arrived, I parked away from the bridge; it wasn’t until I woke up the next morning that I moved into the shade under the bridge.)

When I first arrived it was about midnight so I found a spot by a train bridge to sleep. The very next day I started my scouting. The first local, eclectic attraction I found was El Cosmico, which is a creative modern alternative to a hotel offering teepees, yurts, and vintage campers painted in all kinds of colors for lodging. They also have a gift shop with books, wardrobe, art, and such. You can even buy beer or wine. On top of that is a handful of different communal activities, like cooking or art. I obviously didn’t need to patronize the establishment for a place to stay this time around, but I did have a couple beers while I browsed through the shop. I went outside to kick back and enjoy my last drink and I happened to meet one of the employees and we chatted for a little while. He said it would be cool if I wanted to sleep in the parking lot, which is what I ended up doing for my whole stay.

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Parked by the El Cosmico “sign”

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Some functional art featured in the gift shop

I eventually went to the viewing post hoping to see the lights, but they never showed up. However there was a big thunderstorm over the mountains so I had the chance to see a very impressive lightning display instead, and it lasted several hours. What made it especially cool was that it was so far away you couldn’t hear any thunder, and being in the flat of the desert you could see the whole storm system from end to end, top to bottom. There was actually a good thunderstorm every day during my 5 day visit and one night there was two. After the viewing post I stopped at the Lost Horse Saloon for a drink before heading back to the parking lot at Cosmico. I met a pretty cool local there who I had a good conversation with for a while, and he even bought me a beer.

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The Chinati mountains are out of the photo to the far left. The Viewing post is at the bottom right where all the cars are parked.

One of the other main attractions is the Chinati Foundation which is basically a permanent museum/gallery with various art installations, mostly from Donald Judd. He basically bought up all the buildings in the old military base as well as half of all the property in Marfa (if not most of it). I think his art is genuine and has aesthetic and conceptual value, but it in my opinion it’s overrated; it’s literally a bunch of sculptures of boxes. You can make up your own mind.

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A view of the Chinati Foundation from the road. The concrete boxes in the foreground are one of the installations, while the hanger in the back has many more installations inside.

 

On my way out of Marfa, I stopped to see the last popular sight which is Prada Marfa (however it was a surprise since I didn’t realize I would pass it on my way to El Paso. Prior to, I assumed it was somewhere else and didn’t bother to seek it out). It’s another permanent art installation about 20 or 30 miles going west. Prada Marfa is a fake Prada store. It’s a real building with real Prada merchandise inside, but it’s only an exhibit for viewing. A very “out of place” spectacle but with a subtle, surreal charm.

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“Prada Marfa” A permanent art installation

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I found this on the opposite side of the road near Prada Marfa…

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… and I decided to add to it.

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As you can see, my pictures tell a story and give some insight into the look & feel of the place, but they don’t give everything away either. I think it’s good to spark the curiosity and yet leave a lot for your own discovery should you ever visit. Overall, I liked Marfa quite a lot. I’ll definitely be visiting again on my way back to Maine and will continue to do so long after this road trip is over.

 

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Goodbye for now, Marfa

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El Paso And The Family

 

El Paso; the city in the far corner of west Texas, and, my last stop in the lone star state. It sits directly on the border with Juarez, Mexico. My dad was born there along with 11 (could be 12) other siblings. Most of them and their families still live there, so it definitely was a major destination for the road trip. Did I mention it’s really, really hot?

So I arrived in the evening at my Grandma’s old house where everyone grew up and I was prepared with a couple six packs I picked up just before getting into the neighborhood. Just two of my cousins live there now, David and Isaac. Needless to say, I was really happy to finally be able to hang out with family members that I hadn’t seen in about 15 years. And out of all my relatives there, I’ve been closest to Dave and Isaac since we’re all about the same age.

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Parked at the old house

The next day I went with a few family members, including Dave and Isaac, to a place called Hideaway Lake which is basically a couple man made U shaped ponds that get stocked with cat fish. West Texas is very short on natural bodies of water, and Hideaway Lake is basically one of the closest places to go. We had a fire, did a bit of fishing ( I was only a spectator), had some food, and camped out for the night. I brought my house of course, which really fit the scene.

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For most of the visit, I tried to stay cool and kicked back during the day while my cousins were at work, and once they were home we’d hang out and have a couple beers. Sometimes other friends, family, or neighbors would join us for a while.

 

 

 

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I went downtown one afternoon to set up and do poetry and it went fairly well. I had a small wave of about 4 poems. I had to pack up early though due to really heavy gusts that started suddenly. Sand, dust, and trash was blowing hard everywhere, grit getting in your eyes and mouth… There was no sense in staying.

 

At one point, one of my cousins hosted a big cookout at his house and invited all the family living in the area. There were a lot who didn’t make it, but about a third showed up, which was still quite a few, and we all had a good time just hanging out with tunes and drinks and good food, laughing and sharing stories.

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Just the cousins, aunts, and uncles

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Everyone

I pretty much did what I planned to do, which was mostly just chill out and spend time with family. My cousins and I also went on a few small adventures during my stay, sometimes with a couple other friends or family members. We managed to find a pretty good hookah bar, had some food and beer at a place called the Hoppy Monk, checked out the DJ and the scene at Monarch (a popular and swanky bar for the younger generations), checked out a graffiti park, and made it over to the scenic drive that overlooks all of El Paso and part of Juarez.

 

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On a couple occasions, we cooked up a nice breakfast, and for one of those days, I fixed up mimosas, which Dave and Isaac never had before. The other time it was bloody Marys. There was another cookout on father’s day, and there was a birthday at a pizza place, so all together I had a good fill of family time mixed with good food, like my Tia Bertha’s bacon wrapped jalepeno poppers. And with the exception of the pizza place, there was always oldies playing at the cookouts, just like when I was little.

I stayed for a total of two weeks and it would have been really easy to stay longer, but it was time to make tracks for New Mexico and see my sister and her kids. Every moment of my trip has been filled with anticipation, and leaving Texas was no different; it was just another step closer to the Pacific, another step into the unknown, into something new, a step further from home yet at the same time, a step bringing me closer to where I started.

A Week In Austin Texas

I landed in Austin on a Sunday (5 June) at about 3am. It was a great feeling; to be somewhere new, to be closer to El Paso, and to be done with driving- at least for a little while. I parked downtown and figured it was a perfect chance to take my dog Luke for a run on the bike and explore the layout without any distractions or traffic.

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The hospital parking lot

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Another shot at the hospital

I then found a hospital to park at and get some rest. I spent Monday kicking back and organizing the cabin and Tuesday I did some recon for more parking, places to do poetry, and more mental programming of the area so I know how to get around without thinking. In doing so, I saw a ton of people gathered over the entire bridge on Congress St. and even more on the ground below. I thought maybe it was for a band or boat race or something, so I asked somone and learned that during the summer huge swarms of bats come out from underneath the bridge to feed just after sunset, and a crowd gathers to watch. The swarm gets bigger and bigger later into the season as the babys mature and join in. Unfortunately I didn’t get around to seeing the bats, but I definitely will on my way back home.

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Luke on the truck

 

Wednesday night was my first night doing street poetry. I set up on the corner of 6th and Trinity and wrote my first poem in Austin, and Texas for that matter, for a group of WiFi gurus in town for a conference. It wasn’t long before a cop came up and hassled me about having a table and chair set up because it breaks a “no blocking the sidewalk” law, despite the obvious fact that it wasn’t. City ordinance crap…

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This is where I had to move after the cop talked to me

Anyway, he said I could sit on a tree planter that was near by which is what I did for the rest of the night. I’ve since tried a couple other spots, the best so far being South Congress directly in front of Guero’s Oak Garden (a live music venue with a bar and taco stand). It’s like a very wide, toned down version of Royal St. in New Orleans, which is to say, a pretty cool spot to stroll and hang out.

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This is the 3rd spot I tried out

After getting my bearings, my routine was to park at the Zilker Park parking lot by Barton Springs for the night, and most of the day too, which offorded the opportunity for me and Luke to walk down to the creek and cool off. Then when the sun was going down is when I would head into town. The parking lot is completely empty all night and the location is away from the bustle, so crickets are all you hear, which made falling asleep easy. The lot itself is butted up to a huge field with trees lining the edges, and since I stayed over night, I always secured the best spot under the biggest tree, so I had the most shade all day. And of course Luke had plenty of space to run.

 

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At the Zilker Park parking lot

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My ”backyard” at Zilker Park

 

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Barton Springs Creek at Zilker Park

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Another shot of the creek

There was one poet I met the first night I setup on S. Congress and he goes by “Slum Pickens.” Never said his real name… So I didn’t ask. But I always wonder about people who don’t say their real names- am I supposed to call him “Slum?” Anyway, he had a typewriter, and, I can’t say any more about him since he was packing up just as I was arriving. And since he left town for a few days that night (which I later learned from a girl that works near the spot) I never saw him again. Over the next few days that I was doing poetry, I was the only one. In that time, I quickly learned that Austinites have a lot of poetry love.

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My spot on South Congress

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The tall building in the center is the taco stand

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I cruised down Rainey St. a couple times, which fits it’s reputation as being pretty hip and plentiful when it comes to drinks and food and music. A local told me, and as anyone will eventually notice, it’s an old residential zone, so all the bars and restauraunts are just converted houses. It gives the scene a very comfortable atmosphere. However, I didn’t stop at any places since most of my funds are reserved for gas. Plus I know I’ll be back at some point, and hope to have a companion next time, so, it didn’t bother me to decide to save the dining experiences for another visit. At least I know all the places I want to hit up and where they are now. I did manage to sample at least some of the eats around town. The very first night I arrived, I picked up a pretty tastey gyro from Hero’s food truck (there’s a lot by Trinity and 7th- even more by Red River), and, while doing poetry, I tried a serving of tacos al pastor from Guero’s, which was about 10 feet from where I sat. The al pastor was superb. Probably the best tasting, and best portion of food I’ve ever had for less than (literally) three dollars- no exaggeration. I think the closest thing would be the three dollar bahn mi (3.84 incl. tax) at Moon Wok in NOLA.

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While doing poetry, I noticed this chalk car across the street

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I did the treble clef and then I wrote a poem above the rear wheel… it reads: “A dark car, with hidden blessings, on a journey, as it sits, stoic and beautiful”

Ultimately, I really liked Austin.  Ample culture abound, food, art, nature, music obviously, and I met a lot of nice people; some on 6th, some on Congress, some at the park, basically everywhere I went. One guy invited me to the Brews Cruise, (a group bike ride with free beer at the end) which, sadly, I didn’t go to; I would have had to stay an extra day so I added it to my list of things to do next time around. There was another guy- Jimmy Way- who does street performing inside an illuminated drum contraption.

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Jimmy’s ”human drum machine”

He was one of only a few street performers I observed in the whole city the whole time I was there. Austin may be the live music capital of the world, but the street music scene is almost non existent. I can recall one guy playing trumpet on SoCo, a guitar player at each of the far ends of 6th, and Jimmy, who was on 6th & Congress. That was it. The French Quarter has at least five times that on any given day, save for maybe the summer months. Heck, Portland Maine even has more street performers.

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Suzy, doing some exploring

My only criticisn would be that there’s way too many cops standing around in groups doing absolutely nothing (besides harassing poets and street performers) on 6th street (which is basically like Bourbon St. in NOLA- mostly smoke, neon, pizza, puke, and beligerant plastic people).

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Look at ’em all

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Another group of five (the other group of seven was only a few hundred feet from the group pictured here)

I guess it isn’t that big of a deal though in retrospect, since 6th is best to avoid- not completely mind you, but for the most part. It has some decent attractions, but it’s not where you want to go every night of the week, unless maybe you’ve just turned 21 and you’re into the loud crowd of meatheads and bimbos and a cacophonous din of music from all directions. It’s an interesting scene for sure, otherwise, S. Congress, Rainey, and Red River are the best streets for wandering. There is of course a ton of other establshments surrounding the downtown area, not to mention, all of the natural springs, state parks, scenic drives, and such. But, as LeVar Burton would say, don’t take my word for it.

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Goodbye New Orleans, Hello Texas

So today is my last day in New Orleans. I’ve been here exactly five months, starting from New Years Eve. I had no idea I’d be here for this long. Initially I thought I’d be back in Maine by now, and at this point my arrival back there is estimated for November. We’ll see what happens… I still have to get to California.

The next stop for the moment, or visit I should say, will be in Mamou, Louisiana. A friend of mine in Maine who’s familiar with a lot of southern culture, recommended a place called Fred’s Lounge. He said I should see Tante Sue before she dies. After doing a bit of homework I learned that Fred’s is one of those small spots that’s larger than life in character and reputation. It’s like the Cajun music capital of the world, and, it’s only open early in the morning on Saturdays. (I actually postponed my departure from Wednesday to tonight just for that.)

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After Fred’s, my next visit will be Austin, Texas. I don’t plan to stay more than a week since I’ve already spent almost half a year in NOLA, and I’m anxious to get to El Paso to see my family, which is one of the main reasons for this road trip. I’m also starting to miss my friends and family in Maine. I’m in no hurry though, just excited; to see cousins, aunts, and uncles I haven’t seen in 20 years, to see my sister, nephews and nieces that I haven’t even met, and visit my dad and step mother, and revisit new friends I made at the beginning of the trip on the way back home.

Overall, my experience in New Orleans has been transformative and I will take a part of it with me everywhere I go. I will also try to continue visiting every year. I feel very blessed having made so many good memories to look back on, and living every present moment for all it’s worth, and having so much more to look forward to. I only wish I had more free time to write so I could share more of my experience. I hope you’ve been enjoying the journey so far and thank you for being a part of it.

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