Sometimes I like to pretend I’m David Byrne exploring the fictional Texas town of Virgil in the 1986 art-house classic True Stories. That’s why I made the seven-hour car trip to Marfa, Texas (population: 1,981 in the last census).
The tiny border town is miles from nowhere. Things start to get weird as you head southeast on Highway 90 from Van Horne. About 1.4 miles outside the so-tiny-it-barely-exists town of Valentine is a Prada storefront in the middle of the prairie. The permanent installation “Prada Marfa” is an amuse-bouche before the feast that is our destination. The structure is empty save for one of each shoe from the fall/winter 2005 collection.
The Chinati Foundation is the centerpiece of Marfa. It was established in the late ’80s by the New York City minimalist artist Donald Judd. The intent was to offer an expansive space (the decommissioned Fort D. A. Russell) for large-scale installation art. In addition to Judd’s various works on the grounds, the permanent collection includes pieces by modern art heavy-hitters Dan Flavin and Claes Oldenburg.
In order to see the works, one must take a guided tour led by knowledgeable Chinati Foundation interns fresh off the boat from hipster-haven Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It might be the slow pace of life under the desert sun or the air of arty nonchalance, but the docents do a great job of being accessible and not obtrusive.
The tour can be completed in two parts: The first half starts at 10 a.m., and the second at 2 p.m. Even as a hard-core fan of serious minimalism, I would recommend splitting it over two days. Reservations are recommended, and you can make them at chinati.org.
After meandering about the stainless steel boxes and fluorescent magic, it was time for beers on a patio. There’s a lovely fountain at the historical Hotel Paisano where the Elizabeth Taylor film Giant was filmed. A few drinks in and I drifted off. I awoke recalling something Raoul Duke said to Dr. Gonzo in the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “As your attorney, I advise you to rent a very fast car with no top.”
On that note, I decided it was time to pack it in for the night, and to my delight there was room at this inn. The most affordable quarters in the old part of the hotel are reasonable and allow pets.
The next morning, on the advice of a townie, I lined up at the growers’ market before 10 a.m. I procured a loaf of onion focaccia that was—and still is—the most delicious bread I have ever eaten. I also picked up some local honey, a couple of breakfast tacos (that’s right, tacos, not burritos, in the Lone Star State), some cucumbers and the item I least expected to find in West Texas: cucumber-plum onigiri. I stashed my vittles in my cooler and grabbed more beer, ice and lots of water, preparing to head deeper in to the desert for a day of bliss at Chinati Hot Springs.
This stop is terrifyingly remote. You actually pass through a ghost town on the way to get there. On Route 67 south toward Ruidosa, it takes about two hours on the paved road that’s well-marked with few chances for error. The border town of Ojinaga and the lush green Rio Grande Valley lie to the south. The Chinati Mountains and Cathedral Peak tower in the distance to the west. Under the hot sun, the hazy miles suspend you in time. Once you turn up Hot Springs Road, it’s time to really concentrate on the driving, as the path can be rocky and rutted and congested with burro traffic.
The hot springs are an oasis—literally. After days in the desert, you can sink your feet in to the lush grass that grows along the creek bed. There are a few cabins, and reservations are strongly recommended. If you show up on a whim, you are always welcome to camp for a small fee. Guests may also use a communal kitchen that has a couple of fridges and stoves and grills to prepare food. I found that in this extreme climate, it's best to eat light and take frequent siestas.
Two communal pools (one hot, one cool) offer stunning views of the mountains. Some of the rooms also have private tubs. Everyone I encountered was laid-back. There are about 10 rooms in total. At the most, there were maybe 20 people there during my visit. But the way the grounds are laid out, there are plenty of places to relax with a book and wait for the pool of your choice to be all yours.
The water is about 110 degrees and rich in lithium. All of the water on the property flows from the same spring, so you will drink from and shower in it, creating a maximum mellow. I can’t think of any spot finer than the cold pool to kick back and relax with a beer while watching the sun set over the mountains.
After a day in the desert, nightfall was welcome and surrounded the encampment with more stars than I have ever seen in my life.
“Cortez the Killer” • Neil Young • Zuma
“Manipulation” • The Black Angels • The Black Angels
“Road to Nowhere” • Talking Heads • Little Creatures