MARFA, Texas — Not so long ago I took a road trip to Marfa.
Some of you may have heard of this strange place in the middle of nowhere, Texas. It’s famous for the Prada Marfa art exhibit (though the exhibit isn’t in Marfa proper, to be exact), basically an imposter Prada store built smack dab in the heart of the Texas desert as some sort of artistic statement on consumerism. Since then (2005), Marfa has developed into a weird little hub for artistic weirdos and loners who “just want to get away from it all” — “it all” being the rat race, as it were…the phone gazing, the 24-hour news cycle and myriad other anxieties that come along with living in a modern, fast-paced city.
Prada culture is what they’re escaping, I suppose.
And, indeed, Marfa is a great place to disappear. Perhaps the best. The closest major city is El Paso, three hours northwest. Not only is Marfa isolated, it’s flat as a cutting board, which contrasts much of Southwest Texas and adds to the weirdness of the place. Drive 30, 40 minutes in any direction and you’re gazing up at breathtaking mountain scenery — the sort of landscape one might associate with Utah or Colorado. Rocky cliffs. Stony precipices. They stand there, ancient and motionless, like Gods from some distant time none of us will ever know.
Then, past all that, beyond the jackrabbits and desert mice — or whatever they are — there’s Marfa. As I approached on an ancient Texas highway there was an unidentified white object floating a mile or so over the town. As I drove closer, I got distracted by the new Sturgill Simpson album twanging from my car stereo. I never found out what the hell the white floater was.
One thing I quickly learned about Marfa is that some places are hard to find. Coffee shops and restaurants are tucked around corners and in alleyways. I walked into one coffee shop, located down a dirt alleyway, that served what apparently was the most delicious toast for miles around and cold brew that’s to die for. The baristas worked at a much more relaxed pace than you’d find in Austin or any other major city.
After living in the heart of Austin for the past year — and rarely visiting restaurants/shops outside of the city limits — this was sort of a shock to my psyche, a reminder that life doesn’t have to be lived a thousand miles per minute. Working slower may even be a positive thing, surely better for the heart and the nervous system. After all, the point of coming to Marfa is to slow down, isn’t it — to give the body a break?
Yes, a great slowing down — that’s the feeling you get walking the streets and through the shops of Marfa. You can literally sense it in the air, feel it clinging to your skin. An auto mechanic named Bird (I’ll get to him later) best summed up the Marfa experience better than anyone I’ve heard before:
“I’ve lived in Jamaica, Cleveland, all over,” he said. “But everytime I leave Marfa and come back, everything flattens back out. It’s like the clock slows down.”
A lot of people talk about certain places being “states of mind.” California, in popular culture, represents relaxation, open-mindedness, adventure. New York City is associated with productivity, efficient, shrewdness. Marfa, then, is symbolic of minimalism, nothingness, escapism. It’s a place one goes to forget the outside world exists, a place where one goes to create their own meaning in the ever-present void. You don’t have to worry about catching a bus or keeping up with the news or anything else you don’t want to do. All you have to do is live. Life is created on your own terms.
Marfa, then, is an enormous white board. And you are the dry-erase marker.
So back to Bird: my right front tire had been losing air for most of the trip. By the time I got to Marfa, it was almost completely flat. Torn between ever-increasing hunger and fixing the flat, I decided to grab a bite to eat at BUNS AND ROSES (Note: Marfa’s restaurants have some great names). As I pull in, I saw BUNS AND ROSES is closed, but also happened to notice an auto repair shop right next door — a stroke of strange Marfa fortune, to be sure.
As I’m jacking up the car, fully prepared to install the spare, out walks Bird, a tall, frumpy man with a hook nose and sympathetic eyes. He’s not redneck by any means, but more than a little country — a “small town guy,” is the best way to describe him. After surveying the damage, he says: “You don’t need to put that on,” and proceeds to take the flattened tired into his garage, past two cats named TINKER and DOG, the latter of which is relaxing in an old, dust-covered wheel chair.
He gets right to work patching the tire…drilling the whole, stuffing the fix-a-flat, lighting the fix-a-flat on fire to burn off the excess, the whole shebang. As he’s doing this, he’s talking a mile a minute about some grave misfortunes. His stepdaughter owns BUNS AND ROSES, and the reason it’s not open today is because her real dad decided to “end his days,” as Bird put it, just a few weeks ago.
“And just two days before that, my aunt drank herself to death in Europe,” he said. “It’s been a rough week, I’ll tell you what.”
After finishing up, he slapped the tire back in the wheel well and gave it a hearty pat.
“Do you take cards?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said.
“How about cash?”
That struck a chord.
“There’s three types of beer,” he said. “Cold beer, warm beer, and free beer.”
I bought him cold, free beer — an 18-er of Bud Light, to be exact — and left him a little note on a napkin. I left him my number and told him to give me a call if he’s ever in Austin, thankful that he’d saved me so much time, money and anxiety.
I hopped in the car and drove about 100 yards before hearing a terrible grinding noise in my front right wheel well. I swung the car back around and pulled back into the shop.
Bird was there waiting. He screwed the lugnuts on a little tighter and gave the tire another hearty pat.
“There you go,” he said. “That’ll get you to Austin.”
And it did.
I left Marfa, vowing to someday return to the place where nothing there is. I could never live there on a full-time basis — after a while, I think, the emptiness would become more suffocating than liberating. I could see myself spending two, three months of the year out there, alone.
Maybe when I get a better paying job, I’ll buy a nice little house on the edge of town and spend a few months every summer erasing myself from the world at large. Real estate prices aren’t too bad, I hear. Plus I could rent out the place on AirBnB while I’m not there.
Yeah, maybe that’s what I’ll do.
Until next time, Marfa.