The image is iconic: James Dean sprawled across an old Model-T car, ankles crossed lazily on the windshield, with the vast Texas plains behind him and the mansion “Reata” rising up over it all.
For many years the 1956 movie, Giant, which co-starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Dennis Hopper, was just about the only thing the West Texas town of Marfa was known for. That, and the Marfa Lights—the Texan version of the Aurora Borealis. Often called “ghost lights” attributed to paranormal phenomenon, research shows that the majority of the mysterious nocturnal lights are reflections of car headlamps, campfires or satellites. People came from far away to witness the elusive and luminous nightsky show, against the backdrop of what remained of the Reata façade from the movie set, crumbling slowly into the West Texas dust.
But in the past decade or so, a new crowd of folks has discovered Marfa. Artists, poets, writers and filmmakers began flocking to the town near Big Bend National Park, situated on a high plateau of the Chihuahuan Desert surrounded by three mountain ranges. The Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and the oil prospecting epic There Will Be Blood again put Marfa back on the cinematic map.
Today, between the many festivals and events happening in Marfa, unique art installations, and its famous (or semi-famous) residents and visitors, Marfa is a little too rebellious and rough-around-the-edges to quite become completely hipster. Its residents and visitors like that just fine; Marfa never tried to reinvent or market itself. Its cool, artsy appeal just happened, organically. It’s sort of like a way smaller Brooklyn, dropped in the middle of dusty West Texas town with only one traffic light. Here we give you a roundup of what’s hot and happening if you’d like to plan a weekend here.
Marfa Film Festival
This thing has gotten way huge. Now in its fourth year, this film festival is unlike others in that it’s not a competition. There are no first-place prizes, and no winners. Instead, the Marfa Film Festival was designed as a gasp of fresh air, a retreat showing remarkable cinematic work that is far away from the chaotic and competitive environments that can be found on the film festival circuit. It’s a mysterious enclave hours away from anything that’s come to be known as familiar—strip malls and fast food joints. There are screenings out on the prairie at night, showing more than 50 features, shorts, music videos and experimental works; and marching bands may roam the streets at any given time.
The arts scene started in Marfa back in the 70s, when acclaimed minimalist artist Donald Judd left New York City to escape the art scene he claimed to disdain. With the help of the DIA Foundation, Judd acquired an entire Army base that he filled with art before he died in 1994, including light installations by Dan Flavin and one hundred of his own signature aluminum boxes.
Then there’s the fake Prada store. It sits on the outskirts of town, It looks like a boutique, with luxury goods from the fall 2005 Prada collection lining the windows. Yet the doors will never open for commerce; this is a permanent land art project by Berlin artists Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset. Designer Miuccia Prada approves—she even picked the shoes herself. Judd created many followers to Marfa, including cultural nonprofit foundations such as Chinati and Ballroom Marfa, and a score of quality art galleries.
Marfa Lights Festival
True to the early draw of the eerie Marfa lights, this festival has been going on for more than a quarter of a century. It happens every Labor Day weekend at the Presidio County Courthouse, with food and craft vendors, live music and street dances. And of course, the star of the show—the mysterious haunting lights which have drawn visitors for decades. Early September proves an excellent time to see the lights, whether you attribute them to UFOs, natural phenomenon or just a good excuse to party.
Of course, with a destination as different as Marfa, there are some unusual places to hang your hat as well. You can actually stay at the hotel occupied by James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and the cast of Giant while they were filming—the Hotel El Paisano, opened in 1930 and now returned to its former glory. You can even stay in the Rock Hudson Suite, where the actor lived during the movie’s filming in 1955.
El Cosmico is another of the best—part vintage trailer court, part tepee campgrounds. There’s also a creative lab, greenhouse and amphitheatre, all situated in a community space that fosters and agitates artistic and intellectual exchange. El Cosmico is the latest lodging concept from Liz Lambert and her management company Bunkhouse, the creative force behind the renowned Hotel San Jose and Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin. It offers accommodations in several renovated vintage trailers, safari tents, several traditional 22 ft. diameter Sioux teepees, and a number of tent campsites.
Visitors are encouraged to explore and use the communal spaces on the land including an elm grove full of hammocks, a community lounge and mercantile, and an outdoor kitchen and dining space. El Cosmico also offers an evolving program of workshops and retreats ranges from sewing to cooking to art classes to writing workshops and more, with plans to add a silk screen workshop, pottery studio, and darkroom.
Cowboy Cooking Weekends
If Marfa has any sort of a cultural heritage, it is that of the cowboy, as brought to life in Giant. And you, too, can learn to cook like a cowhand on the range. Try your hand with a culinary weekend of Big City Camp Cooking, exploring the roots of West Texas flavor with renowned chef Lou Lambert. Campers will cook, eat and enjoy the idyllic high plains desert town of Marfa and see how the landscape and culture of this unique place influence its rich culinary heritage.
Guests start with a welcome reception on Friday night, followed by intensive culinary workshops on Saturday along with a cook-out dinner at the Bunkhouse Ranch, and a camp breakfast on Sunday. Lambert is the creator of several award-winning restaurants in Texas, including Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue and Jo’s Hot Coffee Good Food in Austin, Lambert’s Steaks, Seafood & Whiskey and Dutch’s Hamburgers in Fort Worth. And Lou happens to be the brother of El Cosmico’s Liz Lambert.
Hiking and Outdoors Adventures
If all this isn’t enough to keep you occupied, the natural wonder of the Big Bend area is sure to enthrall. Many a hiker has succumbed to the challenges and charms of Big Bend National Park and its “splendid isolation.” The canyon colors, bird species, cactus formations and solitary splendor creates a magical place for hiking and camping.
There are three campground areas available, where visitors can stay up to 14 consecutive nights. There is also an RV campground with full hook-ups available. Big Bend is a hiker’s paradise containing the largest expanse of roadless public lands in Texas. More than 150 miles of trails offer opportunities for day hikes or backpacking trips, with elevations ranging from 1,800 feet along the Rio Grande to 7,832 feet on Emory Peak in the Chisos Mountains. These elevation changes produce an exception variety of plants, animals, and scenic vistas.
Aside from the hiking trails, the geology of the area is simply amazing. From 500 million year old rocks at Persimmon Gap to modern-day windblown sand dunes at Boquillas Canyon, geologic formations in Big Bend demonstrate amazingly diverse depositional styles over a vast interval of time.
Eating and Partying
And when it’s all said and done at the end of the day, no such place as Marfa that attracts creative types would be without a few watering holes and evening diversions. Reata Restaurant, aptly named after the movie’s estate home, is located a few miles away in Alpine and is an offshoot of its renowned sister restaurant in Fort Worth. This is not food for the faint of heart, from Chicken Fried Steak to Calf Fries or the Pepper Crusted Tenderloin, all served in a charming converted farmhouse.
Padre’s is another Marfa original, and favorite, housed in a beautifully renovated 100-year-old adobe building that has had many past lives including, most recently, a funeral home. The bar was crafted from salvaged original hardwood flooring from the building, and features an extensive selection of tequila. Padre’s is the best live-music venue in Marfa complete with a great sound system and wooden dance floor. It’s also a great place to hang out and relax with a game room featuring vintage shuffleboard, air hockey, pool tables and foosball, and a spacious outdoor courtyard that’s kid and dog-friendly.
Cochineal and Austin Street Café both serve up top-notch food in the casually elegant ambience that Marfa is famous for. You won’t find anything too fancy here, but this is as close as it gets. Cochineal is an informal 30-seat dining room serving homemade comfort food using fresh ingredients from its own garden, and boasting an extensive wine list. Austin Street Café, in a restored 1885 adobe house formerly owned by the artist Donald Judd, serves a delectable brunch, along with the specialty cakes and pastries they are famous for.
Whichever Marfa adventure you choose, you can’t go wrong in the Cowboy Poet and Art country capital of Texas. Happy Trails, Ya’ll.
Shelley Seale is a freelance journalist and author based in Austin. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Globe Pequot Press, Andrew Harper Traveler and CNN, among others. Her mantra is “travel with a purpose.”