Listen to my interview with Marfa Public Radio in Marfa, Texas!
Yes, I saw the Marfa lights.
It was about 11 o’clock at night, and I was alone at the Marfa Lights View Park when I spotted two pale greenish-white balls of light, hovering over the barren fields. Yes, it was kind of cool—but kind of creepy, too. (No, I did not get any photos—it was just way too dark.)
Driving along the pitch-black west Texas highways at night is spooky enough, but to find the famed, unexplained floating lights added to the weird and dream-like vibe of these lost highways in the southwest corner of the state. That I had already clocked a thousand big Texas miles before reaching minimalist Marfa made me feel like I had landed in a map-less dimension where the dazed and crazed make up the norm.
I suspect the citizens/characters of Marfa like to play up the Twlight Zone atmosphere of their remote town, with its 1930’s art deco and sparsely-situated boxy white buildings, its abundant retro signage and its mystery lights. And I suspect other small towns would be jealous of Marfa’s success at evolving from an abandoned military outpost without a train station to an internationally-acclaimed mecca for art, design, literature and all-around creativity.
Such places are hard to find and even harder to maintain. So far (shhhh) Marfa’s still cool—cool enough to attract famous people trying to fly under the radar. Nearly every Marfa resident I spoke with quickly divulged their celebrity tale or two, from Lance Armstrong stepping behind the bar to shake his own martinis to Beyoncé showing up unannounced at a party held in someone’s backyard chicken coop.
Perhaps fame holds less meaning out here, a place without red velvet ropes or entourages but plenty of known and unknown artists working side by side. In one evening, I attended two gallery openings where I believe I met a considerable portion of Marfa along with the drifter hipsters that were passing through. Later, I was invited to a dinner party where I shared vegetarian lasagna with musicians, playwrights, painters, producers and other artists. After so long alone on the road, I was comforted by this generous dose of human conversation.
None of these folks were born in Marfa so I listened to each of their stories and what it was that pulled them away from jobs and lives in New York and Chicago and Austin to this ultra-remote, pint-size town in the desert. Some said art, others told me they liked it out here so far from the urban madness and they simply stayed.
I came to Marfa on the sound advice of my friend Andrew Nelson (who is the best insider friend a traveler can have—follow him), and after reading our Texas story in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveler. I was surprised to see the lights for myself, but even more surprised to discover this town was named after the character in my favorite book of all times, the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the novel, Marfa is the wife of the Karamazov’s servant, Grigory, and it is believed that the wife of the Central Pacific Railroad had been reading the book when she gave her husband the name for this railway stop in the Texas desert.
That a small Texas town famous for the railway, air force, one particular minimalist artist, mysterious ghost lights, and big Hollywood films should be named after a character in a Dostoevsky novel seems so quirky as to be perfect.
That the people who live here call themselves Marfans is equally poetic. In the two days I spent exploring their town, I met several of the few and fabulous Marfans who inhabit west Texas. Some are delightfully strange, some will lead you to whichever gallery is showing that night, some will ask you to be interviewed on their public radio station, some will invite you to adopt a role in their guerilla play, some will mix you free drinks with jalapenos, some will let you sleep in their Airstream trailer, and some will gift you one of their homemade crafts with a smile.
You can find whatever you want here in Texas. If you’re looking for trouble, you’ll find it, and if you’re looking for beauty, it’s all around. But if you’re looking for mystery, then come to Marfa—come see the lights and meet the Marfans.