Driving across Southwest Texas on US90, a highway signed as “Texas Mountain Trail” I couldn’t help myself. More than once the expression “you don’t see that everyday” popped into my brain in response to what I encountered along the way. I was headed to the small town of Alpine, Texas where I would be couchsurfing and basing my explorations into Big Bend country and the Davis Mountains. Having never been in this area before, I had that alert feeling of anticipation of new places and experiences.
Approaching the small town of Valentine, Texas I had my first out of ordinary jolt. All alone in the middle of the desert brush along the highway I came upon a Prada store — yes, that Prada — the Italian luxury fashion store — as in “the devil wears Prada.” You don’t see that everyday. On top of that, not only had I come across a Prada store in the middle of nowhere, but there was a naked young lady standing in front of it! You don’t see that everyday — more on that in a minute.
The Prada store outside of Valentine is not really a functioning store and it is more associated with the nearby town of Marfa rather than Valentine. You can window shop the slinky purses and stiletto-heeled shoe selection but the building is sealed and can’t be entered. It is an art installation — something in the range between performance art and architectural sculpture. The creators, artists Elmgreen and Dragset, call the work a “pop architectural land art project.” The Texas State government, proving that mindless bureaucracy flourishes everywhere, called the installation “a billboard” advertising Prada that doesn’t have a billboard permit. I don’t think that Prada is getting much brand penetration with the ranchers out there. I guess that eventually got sorted out and the State now classifies it as a museum.
Back to the naked lady. Much to my surprise and amusement there was a photo shoot of some kind going on when I arrived. It was a bit surreal in that there was a Hispanic family with toddlers walking around in the midst of it all, taking their own pictures and checking out the store. You don’t see that everyday …
Valentine, TX proved to be no more than a stop in the road and soon after passing I started to notice s huge, bulbous, cloud-like structure floating on the horizon. You don’t see that everyday. It turns out that this is a “Tethered Aerostat Radar System” (TARS), one of ten operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agency as part of their illegal drug smuggling interdiction program. These things are flown on a 25,000 foot long steel cable attached to a winch and can handle up to 70 MPH winds. They are helium filled and fly unmanned. Their radar system can detect what they are looking for out to a range of about 240 miles.
It had already been an interesting drive by the time I pulled into the town of Marfa. At first glance of pulling into the town, things looked pretty conventional. I was to learn that Marfa isn’t your everyday place. The downtown is dotted with interesting old buildings, not the least of which is the historic Hotel Paisano. Built in the 1930’s it is beautifully restored. It is famous as the headquarters for the 1956 epic western, Giant. It’s a favorite film of mine with a couple of my favorite actors in it: James Dean and Dennis Hopper.
The movie history and the historic downtown were interesting, but it was time again for something you don’t see everyday. It turns out that, over the last 40+ years, Marfa has evolved into an atypical sort of Texas town, with a population of less than 2000 but 14 art galleries, multiple arts foundations and organizations (not surprisingly one of these is behind the Marfa Prada), independent bookstore and radio station, and organic eateries. In recent elections , Barack Obama carried the county — you don’t see that every election day in southwest Texas.
I visited a couple places to get the feel of the arts vibe in Marfa. The Chinati Foundation is housed on a former Army Air Base and exhibits modernistic, minimalist works in a huge renovated Quonset and on the expansive grounds. The featured artist is Donald Judd (1928-1994) who was a prolific sculpture in both stainless steel and concrete. Judd was apparently the artistic pioneer of Marfa that many have since followed. His large stainless pieces fill the huge interior spaces – their design, construction, and polished surfaces often creating interesting optical illusions. The concrete pieces outdoors are interesting in their collective positioning against the desert horizons.
From Chinati, I went in search of lunch and found what I was looking for at Ballroom Marfa, a cultural arts organization and space that hosts a cafe in its modern, pleasant courtyard. This is the organization that
oversees the Prada
Marfa. They have wide ranging interests in visual arts, film,
music, and community education & events.
I’m not through with Marfa quite yet. There are a couple more quirks to talk about. Out near the Chinati property I happened across a sign for “El Cosmico”, with no particular explanation or clue what it was about. Was it a mystery spot? … or a hippie commune? You don’t see a sign like that everyday, so I had to check it out. I pulled in past an old Wagoneer – also touting El Cosmico. The place turned out to be kind of a hipstery camp with vintage restored travel trailers, yurts, tepees, and platform tents for rent. They also apparently have some events there. Fun, funky looking place but not bohemian in the true sense of the word — the pricing was over my budget to be sure.
Heading east toward Alpine in the dark, I came across something that you don’t see every night — the viewing area for the “mystery lights of Marfa.” Just in case Marfans don’t have enough unusual stuff going on their small town, here is one more. Said to be visible to the southwest on clear nights between the town and the Paisano Pass, the phenomenon of the lights was recorded as far back as the 1880’s. I have to admit that I didn’t see a thing when I was there, but maybe I had already had my share of quirk for the day.
After Marfa, Alpine seems like a pretty conventional small town. With three times the population of Marfa it seemed a bit more bustling of a place. Like Marfa, it has nice old bones but didn’t seem to have as much restoration. In short, you could call it a more “real” place.
There are some nice outdoor murals in Alpine. This one let’s you know that Hoss went to college here at Sul Ross State University.
I had never heard of Sul Ross U., but I’m told it is making lists as one of the best values in 4-year college education. I got the sense that it is a highly valued part of the town and that its activities add vibrancy to the community.
Alpine was a good base for excursions in every direction, but other than Big Bend Brewing Company it doesn’t have much in the way of its own attractions. Big Bend Brewing is touted as the most remote brewery in America — read my story about visiting the brewery here.
The best place I found to enjoy Big Bend’s brews in the evenings was a little hole-in-the-wall called Harry’s Tinaja. This is a classic small town dive that I found to be a friendly and comfortable place. Run by a German named Harry, the place comes complete with a beer garden out the side.