Far from civilisation, these remote communities pack an impressive artistic punch, finds Claire Dodd
“Welcome to the big empty.”
The words of Charles Adams – artist and gallery owner – have followed me across the Great Plains of Texas to the high desert. Past endless flat fields and nodding donkeys pulling oil from the ground, to tiny towns of Wes Anderson pastel hues.
The “big empty” traditionally refers to the plains east of Lubbock where I started my journey – the birthplace of Buddy Holly, and an emerging arts hub. But the nickname is equally apt here, nearly five hours away, in one of the most sparsely populated regions of the US.
Because this isn’t just west Texas. This is far west Texas. And now the pressing question is: do I want tarot cards, cocktail bitters, a seedbomb or a glow in the dark condom bearing the words “Marfa Lights” from the vending machine I’ve discovered in my attempt to get out of the searing sun of the Chihuahuan Desert?
Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the isolation – but things are a little different out here, where the Rio Grande cuts through the rock cliffs of the Big Bend and the sky is so big it almost smothers you. Some of the few towns that scatter the map – former water stops on a railroad that slices through great swathes of nothing – exist a mere 60 miles from the Mexican border. It’s a place that has long drawn both the hardy and the bonkers. The artists and, more recently, the celebrities.
Marfa, home to fewer than 2,000 people, was once purely a ranching town where artists such as Donald Judd relocated in the 1970s. Ranching and art now co-exist, but today it's Marfa’s quirks that draw road-trippers. Posters for hand-poked tattoos and big sky yoga hang in the coffee shop. Sun-scorched retro motel signs line the road through town en route to one of the most well-known local art installations, Prada Marfa.
The open desert of the US 90 highway is the canvas for the incongruous 2005 sculpture by artists Elmgreen and Dragset: a designer boutique surrounded by nothing, with a non-functional door and items from the autumn/winter 2005 collection within. Despite being immortalised on Beyoncé’s Instagram, we (surprisingly) have it to ourselves at first. Then lone cars arrive, drivers papping a selfie before taking off again, followed by bikers who repetitively film wheelies with a Prada backdrop.
In Marfa, everything is tinged with the surreal. Your waiter from the previous evening becomes the cashier in the bookstore by day. And in a town this small, many businesses open just Wednesday to Saturday or Sunday, or perhaps even less frequently. These include Food Shark, a food truck surrounded by vintage cars; or Boyz 2 Men/Bad Hombres tacos, whose sign proclaims “They’re kind of expensive”.
The vending machine, Se Vende, however, is always open. Find it behind a little pink door on South Dean Street. Although after finding the lucky horseshoe I covet is $25, I decide to leave it this time.
Arts spaces such as the Ballroom, or guided visits to Judd’s home and various workshops, appease design lovers; while hip campground El Cosmico, with its airstreams, retro caravans and annual Trans-Pecos music festival, attracts the cool kids.
Me, I’m drawn to a patch of highway eight miles out of town. Stories of mystery lights appearing over the desert at night warrant a designated viewing area. And though lightning sporadically illuminates vast swathes of the sky, I see them; blinking, darting horizontally, then pausing. Car lights? UFOs? The universe could be smaller than we think.
“The sort of people who are drawn to live here are self-starters, the ones who do their own thing. And I think a higher proportion of those people are going to be artists,” says artist, musician and city of Alpine director of tourism Christopher Ruggia as we hike Hancock Hill, which overlooks the city of 6,000. On the edge of the hill, there’s a heavy metal desk, first hauled up as a joke by students at nearby Sul Ross State University in 1981. The notes left in its drawers – “The drink got me here, Mateo” – are archived at the town’s museum.
If Marfa is high art in the high desert, Alpine is somewhat more relaxed.
“We love our weirdos,” says Emily, stretching the tape measure from my ankle to hip. “We just don’t invite them to every party.” I’m in the Church of Pants. Yes, the Church of Pants. Tired of not being able to buy jeans that fit, Emily started making her own made-to-measure denim in a timber shed behind the historic clapboard saloon, Hotel Ritchey, a place where pioneer cowboys once found accommodation when the west was still wild.
Alpine is littered with intriguing emporiums such as these; a main street town with one foot in the 1950s, and one in the food truck and coffee shop-era of the hipster. Alongside vinyl stores, book shops and vintage stores specialising in glitzy rodeo queen-wear, there are galleries, dive bars and public art pieces galore. Sculptures, mosaics and murals are scattered across town. One reads: “Alpine, the mecca for musicians, poets, writers, artists."
No one knows who did it. The sign went up overnight on the road between Alpine and Marathon, population 430. The outbuilding – just a shell, once something to do with the railroad behind it – was painted white. The familiar red circles of the Target logo cut from ply and painted red, glued to the breezeblock. And with that, Marathon woke one morning in 2016 to its latest art piece: a wry answer to Marfa’s Prada.
Tiny it may be. The upmarket Gage Hotel, with its coffee shop, White Buffalo Bar, restaurant and own barbecue pit and brewery, the Brick Vault, dominates the town. The zany Eve’s Garden Organic Bed & Breakfast offers an alternative with self-built rooms sculpted from paper, adobe and fibre cement.
With almost no light pollution, this part of the desert is known for its stargazing. At times, I’m told, the milky way is so bright and low it scares out-of-towners.
“Things here are on a pretty big scale,” says artist, photographer and writer, E Dan Klepper, whose gallery, full of nature-inspired images including a time-lapse of the lunar eclipse, sits by the Gage. “When natural events happen, you see the whole thing. There’s not a huge population, so the world is not really affected by humans as much. Change happens, but it happens a lot more slowly than other places. To me that’s kind of interesting.”
American Airlines operates daily flights from London Heathrow to Lubbock and Midland via its hub in Dallas/Fort Worth from £829 return.