Marfa, Texas: The Capital of Quirkiness
How many of you remember watching the TV show Hee Haw? Oh, sure, it was as corny as all get-out, but one of my favorite parts of the show was when they would salute little, out of the way spots. Please tell me you remember when someone on the show would say something like, “Hee Haw salutes my hometown, Podunkville, Alabama, population 1,317!” And then the whole Hee Haw gang would simultaneously rise up out of the cornfield, wave their straw hats in the air and shout, “Sa-Lute!” You see, Hee Haw knew their fan base didn’t live among the skyscrapers and big city lights. Their fan base lived in the small towns and rural communities that make up thousands of little dots on the map.
I love knowing that every one of those little dots on the map has a story to tell. So today, in true Hee Haw fashion, I would like to offer up my own salute to a dot on the map with a tale worth telling. Are ya ready?
The Campfire Chronicle salutes Marfa, Texas, population 1981! Sa-Lute! Grab your straw hats and start waving now! We’re going to find out why a town with a population of under 2,000 people has been featured on 60 Minutes, NPR, and in InStyle magazine. (Now, that’s a claim Podunkville, Alabama can’t make!)
Home on the Range
Marfa is located about ten miles from the Mexican boarder, in the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s hardly a lush landscape that screams, “Tourist destination!” But it does scream, “1950’s Western movie!” It screamed that so loudly that the exterior scenes of the 1956 movie, Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean were filmed on the outskirts of Marfa. The fact that James Dean’s fatal car crash occurred while Giant was still being filmed, added to its intrigue. Dean fans from around the globe continue to make pilgrimages to this out of the way location.
Gone With the Wind had Tara. Giant had Reata, a mansion façade standing in the middle of Ryan Ranch, seventeen miles west of Marfa. The house was based on the Victorian era Waggoner Mansion, which still stands in the north Texas town of Decatur. When you compare the photos of Reata when it was a bustling movie set with the ruins of today, there are virtually no similarities. The structure itself is now nothing more than a few boards held together with rusty nails. Yet people still travel to see it.
The stage play and 1982 film, Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean portrays a group of Dean’s hardcore fans that collect bits of the set from Giant. And, in the 1985 film, Fandango, Kevin Costner and his onscreen buddies take a road trip to Mexico and end up sleeping at the site of Reata’s ruins.
See the Light
Hollywood stars aren’t the only things that have shined a spotlight on Marfa. For more than one hundred years, mysterious lights have appeared in the West Texas sky above Marfa. The lights were first documented in 1883, when Robert Reed Ellison, a cowhand, saw a light flickering in the sky while he was driving cattle. Fearing it was an Apache campfire he asked if others had seen the light. He learned that local settlers knew about the lights. They had been seeing them since the town was founded, a couple of years earlier. The settlers, too, had assumed the lights were coming from distant campfires. Yet, when they explored the area, there were no ashes or signs of a campsite. And, while settlers thought the lights were Native American campfires, the Native Americans believed the lights were fallen stars. Hmm…
The lights, which are known as the Marfa lights, the Marfa mystery lights, and the Marfa ghost lights, are described as basketball-sized orbs, which either float above the ground or high in the sky. They are seen as white or in shades of yellow, orange, red, blue, or green. People report that the balls of light hover at shoulder height, move at low speeds or shoot rapidly in any direction. Normally, they’re in pairs or groups. They are said to divide, merge, disappear, reappear, move randomly, or move in patterns. They can last for an instant or for hours on end. Well, that seems to cover just about any option!
Pilots, during World War II, were unsuccessful in their attempts to find the source of the lights. There are many theories about them. They are said to be everything from UFOs, to the ghosts of Spanish conquistadors—everything from a mirage, to glowing gasses, to the distant lights of cars. I don’t know what to think, but I’m pretty sure there were no cars zipping around Marfa in the 1880s.
There doesn’t seem to be a pattern to the sightings, but the Marfa Chamber of Commerce has an annual Marfa Lights Festival, one weekend a year. The city has erected a permanent viewing platform for the curious, even though the lights only appear on average of about a dozen nights each year. It is a popular spot with scientists, photographers, and paranormal seekers alike.
Oh Marfa, Where Art Thou?
In 1971 minimalist artist, Donald Judd, moved from New York City to Marfa. He left SoHo in search of space. He found space for as far as the eye can see. Judd purchased two large hangars, as well as some smaller buildings and set about permanently installing his art. He continued expanding, snatching up space as opportunities arose. He displayed large collections of art by various artists, allowing people to experience it outside of a museum setting. Judd passed away in 1994, but not without leaving behind rules on how the public can interact with his work. The Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation control his work and uphold his wishes.
Judd opened the floodgates for artists seeking a different kind of life. Marfa is now a sort of West Texas art mecca. It is home to the notable Prada, Marfa, which is a faux Prada boutique displaying real luxury handbags and shoes. It is also home to more food trucks than you can shake a stick at.
I’ve been trying to find an adequate way to describe what it is like to experience this place, but the best I can think of is that it is sort of like Portlandia and Bonanza had a love child and named it Marfa! Here’s to Marfa! Sa-Lute!
But hey, judge for yourself in this great video from 60 Minutes!