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BACK FROM THE DESERTS OF WEST TEXAS

A recent Austin Post headline said it best. Austin isn’t weird. West Texas is weird.

I’m fresh off the plane from Marfa, a small arts town in the middle of nowhere in West Texas (about 60 miles from the Mexican border). This place really shouldn’t exist. It makes no sense.   

Marfa sits about 200 miles from the nearest international airport. It’s surrounded by mountains and desert. The population is 2000 people and is the size of Ocean Grove. Whenever I mention I just got back from Marfa, I get a “huh?” or “say what?” Where the fuck is Marfa?

The fact of the matter is Marfa is one of the greatest places I’ve ever been. An old railroad stop back in the 1800s, the town basically died after World War II. It took artist Donald Judd to rescue it back in the 70s. He bought up much of the town, which features some really incredible old Spanish architecture, and turned it into his personal contemporary arts canvas. The town quickly garnered an international arts reputation. To this day it attracts people from all over the world. It’s just so unassuming. You would never think a town this out of the way would draw the kind of attention it has. I mean, you really have to want to go to this place. I took a 3.5 hour flight to Dallas, drove 5 hours to pick up my buddy in Odessa and then drove another 2.5 hours to Marfa. Long fucking day of traveling although I’ve had longer. Oh yeah, the Coen Brothers hit No Country for Old Men was filmed here as was the James Dean classic Giant.

DSC_1389The drive into Marfa

Today Marfa is a place where people go to find space. Freedom. Good food. Weird people. Beautiful scenery. Great music. Old cars. And of course, art. Amazing bands trickle through here. Ty Segall played the local bar, a former funeral home, Padres last month. Robert Plant played in the middle of El Cosmico, a 20 acre “hotel” made up of vintage travel trailers, teepees and tents. Sonic Youth played at the local performance hall once, Ballroom Marfa. Grizzly Bear recorded their last album here. Randy Quaid and his wife were arrested here after dodging a hotel bill in Southern California a few years back. The list goes on and on. But by the looks of this place, you just would never expect it. The town is so quiet, except for the freight train that passes through about twice a day. You can almost see the ghosts walking by. It’s downright eery in a way.

DSC_1411The teepees at El Cosmico

The local liquor store, the only one in town, is named El Cheapo. Frama Coffee shares space with the town’s laundromat, Tumbleweed. Further up the road is The Get Go, a natural food store that would rival any we have here in Monmouth County. Down the block from that is Cobra Rock Boots, a shop owned by a 20 something named Colt. This dude makes some of the best handmade boots you’ll ever find. I mean, anybody with the name Colt is bound to do great things. Levi’s currently carries them in some of their West Coast stores. Not cheap. But they’re made in the U.S.A and will last a lifetime. That just almost doesn’t exist anymore. In Marfa, the spirit of quality and attention to detail is alive and well. Hand painted signage EVERYWHERE. I fucking love that.

MarfaTX-250El Cheapo

irrodxiNqAeS2Cobra Rock Boot Company

Marfa is just one small fucking town with amazing weather. 85 and sunny everyday (at least in April). You’ll see the guy that served you food or the girl from the thrift shop all hanging at the same bar later that evening. Some are completely cool and down to earth while others just think they are the coolest shit in the world. They know you are from out of town….yet so are they. Mostly transplants from Austin, Denver, LA, San Fran, Portland, Seattle and New York looking for that next off the radar cool place to claim as their own.

One chick looked at us and with a bit of an attitude and asked where we were from. We said New Jersey and of course got an immediate eye roll. Little does she know. My buddy Wayne, Jersey bred but now living in Odessa, TX, (about 2.5 hours north of Marfa) doesn’t take any shit. He quickly pounced on her and with a loud Jersey twang asked her, “Where are YOU from?” knowing damn well she wasn’t originally from Marfa. She said, “I live here.” Wayne shot back, I didn’t ask you if you live here, I asked you where you’re from?” She knew she was caught. “Colorado.” Haha. Turns out she had moved to Marfa 4 months earlier and is currently an intern at Marfa Public Radio. We ran into her a few times after that and of course that pretentious bullshit attitude turned to nice as pie. “Hey, how’s your trip going?” with a big ol’ fake smile. But we didn’t let the few assholes we encountered along with way spoil our good time.

IMG_0725The Get Go natural food store

Much as is the case in Asbury, the people in Marfa are protective of their community and don’t want it fucked up. I get that. But with that said, get off your high horse (no pun intended). There is an air of pretention amongst some in Marfa that is a huge turn off. But I guess that is the case in any gentrifying community. Asbury certainly isn’t immune to that idea. Some people think their shit ain’t stinky while others are friendly and cool with everyone. On the flipside, we met a ton of great people who were glad to be hosting us in “their” town.

DSC_1454The lounge inside El Cosmico

Food trucks are a big highlight in Marfa. There is Fat Lyle’s which serves up Southern comfort food. Brussell sprouts with homemade blue cheese, caramelized onions, bits of bacon over French fries. Fucking yum. Fried chicken every Sunday. Fucking yum again.

Boyz 2 Men is another eccentric food truck (I mean that name just says it all) owned by one truly odd fucking dude. His menu was dubbed the “Menu of Confusion” and was just a bunch of shit scattered on a piece of paper. It was almost irritating until you remembered you were in Marfa. The pulled pork tacos here were on point. We saw this dude a few times at some of the local bars, always wearing a backpack. What the fuck was in that bag? The good lord only knows. And sure enough, this dude was a dick. We tried talking to him one night and he basically didn’t say more than a handful of words. At that point we weren’t sure if he was an asshole or just a bizarre fucking guy. So we just kind of shrugged our shoulders and moved on.

2011_Food_Shark-00951Adam Bork of Food Shark

And then there is the king of Marfa’s food truck scene, Food Shark. Owned by perhaps the oddest guy in town, Adam Bork, this is where I always go first, even before checking in at El Cosmico. His food has a Mediterranean bent. Weird sci-fi music is usually playing while you order and eat. Bork typically yells your name out of a megaphone when the order is up. He always gives out $2 bills and 50 cent pieces with your change. It’s these little things in Marfa that make this place unusual and fucking rad.

journ0033One of the Food Shark cars outside the Museum of Electronic Wonders

You’ll also notice Bork’s collection of vintage vehicles emblazoned with the Food Shark logo all over town. He has over 11 of them. You won’t walk many blocks without seeing one of them parked somewhere. Guerilla marketing at its finest. Although considering the size of the town, it’s almost unnecessary. Which is exactly why I love it. The cars just add to the entire vibe of the place.

5188037849_71f3dcdc2f_oInside the Late Nite Grilled Cheese Parlour

Bork owns another food joint a few blocks away from Food Shark. The Museum of Electronic Wonders and Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour. Bork is an avid collector of 1970s television sets, record players and 8 track players. The TVs line the walls and windows and are usually showing just a solid red or green screen. 70s hard rock is playing in the background. His grilled cheese menu is small but packs a huge culinary punch. I stuck with the Gruyere cheese with caramelized onions, roasted mushrooms and sautéed asparagus. The Motherfucker is every menu item combined. At $11.50 it’s the most expensive and most tasty grilled cheese you’ve ever had. This place is unreal and if someone in Asbury ever came to their senses, a similar concept like this would hit homeruns all day (I mean night) long.

Most everything in Marfa is local. It has to be. Produce comes from backyard gardens. Meat is raised locally and so on.

DSC_1478Marfa Burrito is the real deal

IMG_2159The Last Supper by Andy Warhol

You would never expect to walk down the main drag in Marfa and stumble into an art gallery with an Andy Warhol exhibit on display. But that is exactly what happened. Warhol’s The Last Supper, was hanging at the Ayn Foundation. These giant pieces were commissioned in 1984 and were a reinterpretation of DaVinci’s most famous work. Considering Marfa’s rich foodie culture, it was pretty fitting.

Warhol in Marfa. I can only shake my head and laugh.

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Back to El Cosmico. I don’t even know where to begin. Just one of those places that blows your fucking mind. We stayed in a teepee. I mean, enough said. Every morning I woke up early, went into the hotel lounge to grab a coffee and then headed for the open air, outdoor showers. A hot shower (with great water pressure BTW), a cup of coffee, the sun rising over the mountains, and the chilly desert air tickling my nutsack. Not much better on earth.

DSC_1412The bathrooms at El Cosmico

Lots of great people came and went from El Cosmico. I met a trio from San Francisco while drinking my coffee in the lounge one morning who were making a loop around the whole of America. They came in late one night and the next morning I listened to some of their stories of life on the road. They had just spent a night on the beach at the Salton Sea in California. You want to talk about weird? Google that place. See their blog here.

DSC_1414El Cosmico

Marfa is also famous for the Marfa Mystery Lights, basically a bunch of weird, extraterrestrial lights in the sky that blink and change colors and move around at a certain spot off the main highway coming into town. We went. And sure enough, some crazy shit was happening in the sky. The stars are so bright in this part of the country you could almost reach out and touch them.

The bars in Marfa are weird as well – in a good way. There are only 3 of them. Padre’s, like I said before, is a former funeral home. I met a local guy who had a hard time hanging out in there because he had seen multiple family members in coffins where the stage now sits. He told me the place was no doubt haunted and I believe him. We saw one serious Honky Tonk band here with a stand up bass player that wouldn’t quit. The pool tables here are fucking filthy and look like someone just yacked all over them. The outdoor area is filled with old tables and vintage automotive signs. The bartender, a guy from Austin who goes by the name Johnny Walker, was psyched when he found out we were from Jersey. “Where about’s?” Asbury Park. “No shit. Bruce Springsteen.” Yup! Free shots for us. Thanks Bruce.

77806_445849795451841_2036768149_oTy Miller, owner of The Lost Horse Saloon

The other local stomping ground was my favorite, the Lost Horse Saloon owned by a one eyed cowboy named Ty. Turns out this guy is an actor who had a role in Halloween II back in 1982. We’re not sure how this leather-eye-patch-wearing bar owner lost his eye, but we’d like to think it was in some kind of shootout with the local Sheriff or some bullshit like that. Anyway, this guy was the real deal. “So what brings ya’ll into town?” Just a little R&R. While sitting out back next to fires burning in old oil barrels, Ty told us of the time his dog, a black mutt that roamed the bar along with another dog that slept on the floor next to the pool table, ran away. Two weeks later he got a call from a friend who spotted the dog at a Budweiser factory a few miles away. There’s really no point to the story. But Ty was one genuine dude with no chip on his shoulder.

DSC_1462Take a bike for a spin at El Cosmico

Seriously, no matter where I go I always meet someone from New Jersey. On the drive in to town, about 45 minutes away while driving through the winding mountains and plateaus of West Texas, I was pulled over. 78 in a fucking 70. In New Jersey, that shit flys all day long. But in the desert, these cops must be bored. I looked into my rearview and saw this young dude in blue jeans, a brown leather holster with a Sherriff’s  badge attached wearing a cowboy hat straight out of a Clint Eastwood film. He walked over, asked me why I was speeding and then answered his own question by saying “just checking out the scenery?” Yup, that’s it. He let me go with a warning. Turns out his family is from the Jersey Shore. Small fucking world. I also met a lesbian couple while sitting out front of El Cosmico watching the sun set on the mountains and drinking some of the best beer ever, Shinerbock. They were from Hoboken and hang out in Asbury frequently. Small fucking world in an even smaller fucking town indeed.

Marfa, see ya soon!

fs Another Food Shark car

6 Responses to “BACK FROM THE DESERTS OF WEST TEXAS”

  1. John Merriman says:

    What a horribly written article. Referring to someone as a “dick” based on nothing? Why so aggressive?

  2. Based on nothing? No, based on the the fact that he was a dick.

  3. EYEBALL says:

    Dude, you gotta stop by Terlingua next time you’re around…a really funky fun place too. Less pretentiousness but still filled with crazy amounts of character. I’ve lived here for ten years, but leave for the Summer. Great article on Marfa…I think you captured it as well as anyone on the fly can. Have fun.
    PeaceMark

  4. I have been to Terlingua before. Actually that’s how I found out about Marfa. I started following The Field Lab blog and discovered Marfa that way. I visited John Wells in Terlingua last year when I was in Marfa for the first time. Very cool down there. I love the Startlight Theatre. Such a cool building. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  5. Phillip says:

    Great story for the most part. Definitely makes the trip look worthwhile. I don’t understand why the writer labeled Marfa a “gentrifying community,” though. Is there a deeply oppressed and poor population who are losing their homes to the middle- and upper-class newcomers? Or did the writer mean trendy and gaining popularity?

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