We drove the quiet, wide-open two-lane, counting the other cars on one hand, passing family ranches with their names bent into iron and adorned with longhorns and wreaths. The highway cut through nowhere, the place chosen for a Prada store and a joke, through Valentine, the smallest town I’ve ever seen.
We noticed the harbingers of something bigger. We left behind signs for motels no longer standing and found ourselves moving from a town with a population of 200 to another ten times as big: Marfa.
The town was originally created as a railroad water stop, named by the wife of a railroad executive who was reading The Brothers Karamazov.
In 1975, three years after moving to Marfa, Donald Judd said, “There is no mystery in New York,” perhaps as a kind of explanation for the unlikely settlement. There is plenty of mystery in Marfa.
The mystery lights, which can be seen every clear night nine miles east of town, glow in the distance of the Chinati Mountains. No one knows what causes them. Early guesses included campfires made by Apache Indians, but when settlers investigated they found no ashes, or the marauding ghosts of conquistadors, eternally searching for gold. A pamphlet from the local Chamber of Commerce provides the testimony of a native Marfan: “Mrs. W. T. Giddings, who grew up watching the lights and whose father claimed he was saved from a blizzard when the lights led him to the shelter of a cave, considers the lights to be curious observers, investigating things around them.”
I wandered into a hardware store, lured by the smell of saddle leather and the neat bins of nails and screws. After inspecting the tack I noticed a homespun natural history display set up against the back wall, an array of skulls, jawbones and mounts of local kill, ranging in size from mice to stags. Two of the bucks were mounted as they’d been found: antlers in a lock, the way they died, unable to wrest themselves from their enemy. The store clerk said there’s a lot less hunting these days, as much of the land has been bought up by private ranches.
Several movies have been filmed in Marfa, including Giant, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, but the movie that best captures the feeling of Marfa wasn’t filmed there. The empty streets and old-fashioned (though not quite so run down) buildings smack of The Last Picture Show. Appropriately, the Palace movie house is now a private residence.
As we pulled back onto 90 and lost Marfa in the rearview, we tuned into Marfa Public Radio, playing “Don’t Fence Me In,” serenaded by a singing cowboy as we eventually lost the station.