What is Marfa
This past weekend, Katya and I went to Marfa.
What is Marfa, you say? Even Texans don’t know what Marfa is and Marfa’s in Texas. Both my Uber driver and my rental car associate had no idea which was honestly more than a little concerning.
To answer the question, Marfa is this little art town of 1900 people in the middle of nowhere in the desert of Texas.
Getting to Marfa is a pilgrimage in itself. You drive eight hours from Dallas to get there with nothing but open road and desert horizon around you, and if you run out of gas along the way you’re just sort of out of gas in the middle of the desert. By the time you are there, you have to pause to ask yourself, does it really matter what’s actually here?
Anyway. I know I’m losing you describing Marfa this way, so here comes the story, in proper chronological order.
Hitting the Road
A couple months ago Katya convinced me we should go to Marfa.
Now, I did my due diligence – I asked the couple prerequisite questions it feels like you should ask, like, Where is that? and, What is there to do there? to which I got strange vaguery’s like, There’s a bunch of art in Texas and Let’s stay in a yurt! and Beyonce goes there isn’t that cool?
Honestly the answer could have been practically anything. We had been scheming to take a trip together for some time, and questful roadtrips really make me feel like Don Quixote but Asian and female and not actually a knight.
We happened to be in Dallas for work that week. The plan was to rent a car and hit the road. The full drive was eight hours, so we would do half the drive on Friday and the other half Saturday morning, stopping to rest in some oil town in between.
I went to Avis to pick up the car I reserved online. As I walked towards the sleek black Ford Taurus that would be mine for the weekend, the cherry-red Dodge Charger sitting next to it couldn’t help but catch my eye. I knew I had no choice but to go back inside and shell out the money to make it ours.
Boy was that one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
You know the over-used cliche, “roared to life?” Well, when you start the ignition of purebred American muscle, it. Mother-fucking. Roars to life.
My body pounded as I took to the great wide Texan road. It was as if all eight cylinders were hooked up to my heart and punching it over and over like what I imagine John Cena would be like as a defibrillator. A cop was already trailing me. The car spat with impatience as I crawled along at 35 mph.
I revved as I pulled up to headquarters. “You’re gunna die!!!” I texted Katya. “Where are you?!”
When she sees the car we both break into uncontrollable maniacal laughter, most assuredly scaring the bejesus out of our khaki-wearing coworkers all around us. “I was scared when you texted me ‘You’re gunna die!'” she says, “I thought it might be an old beat up van or something!”
“You thought I was going to rent some shitty van for us this weekend!?”
“I don’t know!!!”
“This is going to be SO fucking good.”
We were gunna be mother-fucking Thelma and Louise.
Ice Cream and Snacks
We drive 6 hours and 350 miles to get to Midland. Midland is the most acceptable-looking pocket of civilization near Marfa that looks like we won’t have to stay in some seedy motel with bedbugs and unsavory characters and no locks.
For the first couple hours of the trip, we shake the week behind us. We get used to the car. He gets used to us. Once we’re properly acquainted we realize she’s not a he and we name her Louise.
We stop for water and snacks and ice cream. I buy a great melty scoop of Pecan Praline – I think about how I can never decide which pronunciation of pecan to use – and a jar of sweet ‘n’ hot jalapenos. Katya’s jittery. She buys ice cream too. She scoops big ole helpings of curiously green free praline samples onto her scoop in a cup. When she gets rejected by the credit card minimum she adds a bag of Texas jerky to her bill. This is the first bag of jerky of the trip – and I’ll foreshadow for you – it’s not the last. We’re walking back out to the car when she screams she needs a bathroom and runs back inside. I feel slightly sorry to Bluebell creamery, since we’ve just torpedoed through their tiny store, thrown free samples of candy at our faces, and demanded a bathroom while someone else is still inside.
The ice cream is perfectly sweet and delicious. It melts away too quickly, like the ice cream is in some alternate warp speed timeline and my eating it is in normal slow people time. Things are weird in the desert.
We hit the road again. Ice cream is like a universal age-agnostic pacifier. Our souls are fed. The jitters are gone.
Note: As I’m writing this, I’m reflecting on how ice cream is made of milk and sugar, and in all reasoning should make one even more jittery once consumed. This blog should not be confused with life advice.
Like I said. Things are weird in the desert.
Layover in Midland
We drive and we talk. We talk and we drive. We drive into the sunset.
We drive 100 mph right on top of the yellow line in the middle of the road. The road is empty and huge. Even if there were a glimpse of a car coming from any direction they could easily drive past while we drove down the yellow line. We blast house music and Havana by Camila Cabello and the sun winks at us from the upper left corner of the windshield. I repeat the song that’s playing and turn it up louder. The beat washes over me, Katya, Louise, the road, the earth, universe. We are all connected. This adventure. The life-long search for something more. This is America. This is bliss.
We get to Midland. I get turned around trying to find the hotel because Texan roads are three times as wide as normal roads and even the GPS can’t detect where you are.
We check into Homewood Suites. When we walk into our room, we smell something funny, but we don’t even care because we’re tired and hungry and this is just a pit stop for us anyway. A blip on the radar in our grand journey to Find Marfa. We laugh about how we have a 1,000 sqft room complete with kitchenette, because that seems like something we really need right now. Like let’s whip out some beef jerky, jalapenos, and leftover coffee and make a stir fry.
We go to Volcano. Volcano is an Asian Fusion restaurant that serves Japanese, Chinese, and Thai food all on one menu and that Google says is 0.2 miles away from our hotel but it seems like we have to walk across about 8 acres of parking lot to get to. We eat sushi in the middle of Texas in this place called Midland. The sushi is really, really good. We sit in our booth, basking in our day, spilling our sake, resting our bones. We eat overly salted edamame and watch the people of Midland eat Asian food while a curiously bright SUSHI sign blinks above the bar. The H in SUSHI is made of a black line placed across two vertical chopsticks. We laugh about the sign in an ironic-but-not-ironic way and wonder if it’s custom-made or mass produced, (and what either answer suggests about the society we live in). We ponder if we could possibly buy one and place it in our apartment as “art” and get away with it. By the time we leave, all the customers have gone and the Chinese people running the place are sitting down to dinner. They’re in no rush to rush us. It’s like our booth is a bubble, in which we can spill all the sake we want and scream on the top of our lungs and still the waiters would calmly pinch their food with their chopsticks and eat their dinner.
Eventually we decide it’s time to peel ourselves off the couch and make our exit. We’re nowhere near ready to get back to our smelly room, so we make a man on the sidewalk take a photo of us and order an Uber to the most promising bar we can find on Google: Beer Garden. We have no idea what we’re in for.
The Uber that picks us up is driven by an older man and a young boy’s asleep in the passenger seat. He says, “Sorry about the little guy. It’s past his bedtime, if you don’t mind.” Who could mind?
We ask the man if the Beer Garden is a good place to go. He says he’s never been, but he’s heard a lot of people talk about it, and he’s also heard that it just started serving sausage for lunch! We think this is the best we can ask for, really.
The bouncer is this bearded disgruntled looking animal who applies your wristband with surprising grace and tenderness. I glance back at him as we walk to the bar.
It takes about three seconds to case the joint and decide that (a) the Beer Garden lives up to its name and (b) there are exactly zero tall Asians and luminescent Russians other than us. We accidentally cut the line, but the bartender serves us beer anyway.
The place is huge. There’s rows and rows of big wooden picnic tables open to the desert night, with thin lines of fire to warm you in between. We scan the lot, deciding where to sit. Next to the guy with a Stetson? The lady with the dog?
An attractive Argentinian asks, “Want to play some Jenga?”
“Um. Yes,” I say. Sometimes all you need is germy wooden blocks for humans to interact with other humans.
We sit down with him and his friends. I ask what their names are and what they do, because that’s what you’re supposed to do when a guy asks you to play Jenga, but I don’t even listen because I really just want to win Jenga. Katya’s gone quiet. Playing Jenga makes her nervous. Even the strongest of us have Kryptonite in the strangest places. The attractive Argentinian stands up to move his piece and we realize he’s surprisingly short. His heavyset friend doesn’t play but he has a wife and kids in Dallas and kind smiley eyes. I am laser focused on the wooden blocks. I go for the riskiest moves. I lose.
Our name is called and my heart jumps through the nonexistent roof. We’re up.
Did I mention that Beer Garden is a karaoke bar? On top of the beautiful open-sky benches, there’s a massive wooden stage that you need stairs to get to, complete with DJ on the left-hand side. You can request songs with the DJ or via smartphone through their app. Texas. The T stands for technologically advanced.
My heart feels like it’s gunna fall straight out of my chest.
Katya touches my arm. “Are you OK?”
I don’t get it. I’ve emceed countless events before. My best friend’s wedding and corporate offsites, all in front of hundreds of people. I’ve never felt like I was about to hyperventilate. I’ve never felt that way, period.
My resolve steels. Oh yeah? Body doesn’t want to get up on that stage and sing in front of a hundred or so cowboys and cowgirls? Well, TOO BAD. Body gunna do this.
I can’t remember what we sing first. I do remember taking a great big gulp of beer and squaring my jaw with resolution as I follow Katya up the stairs to get on stage.
Most people seemed to go there to enjoy a beer or two, take in the open night air, laugh and listen to music. Not us. We were one or two standard deviations below the average person’s singing ability, and we were there to sing our hearts out. After the first song I get over the hump and it’s still scary but it’s a known scary and we can’t stop.
Where is the Love? and Gangsta’s Paradise. Toto by Africa and Killing Me Softly by Lauryn and The Fugees. We really could have picked easier songs – it would have been easier on the audience that’s for sure. I think people are impressed with my rapping skills. They are definitely watching at least.
I meet a great big bearded man in a dark blue mechanic’s jumpsuit with his name embroidered on a patch over his heart. He throws me around the dirt floor and we literally dance up a storm. My white sneakers grow orange. His name is Randall, in cursive.
Katya befriends some ladies in the corner. They have just come off stage after a glowing rendition of something pretty and melodic and way better than us. She chips away at them and makes them love her.
By the end of the night we have a cheering section made of the attractive Argentinian and his friends, the three melodic ladies, and the DJ who bails us out of particularly difficult-to-sing lyrics. He really has a beautiful voice.
Is there nothing unconquerable in this world, with a beer in hand and an override button to slash all the ropes in your body pulling you to sit down and never ever sing like that again? Is being courageous doing courageous things, because what is courageous really, or rather, is being courageous doing things you never would have done otherwise? One person’s form of courage could be another’s cowardice.
We pass out in our smelly hotel room, no longer noticing the smell in the slightest, full and drunk and happy, with crumbs of Peanut Butter Chex Mix and Cheetos on our faces.
The morning is not kind to us. We do get up, though. We go to Chick-fil-A, which, judging by the size and the crowd, seems to be the premier spot for dining at noon on a Saturday in the heart of Midland. We eat our chicken after asking for all the sauces please, and we sit behind a guy eating a salad. A salad, at Chick-fil-A. I’m a little mean to Katya, resentful that I’m twenty eight and she’s twenty four and not feeling quite as death-like as I.
The level of buzz and bustle and things happening in this little town in this giant metropolis of a Chik-fil-A is like what you’d expect to see at the hottest new restaurant in the city. Ecosystems, I think, as I painfully lift a waffle fry to my mouth, unable to take off my sunglasses for fear of being blinded by daylight. Things are different but the same everywhere you go.
We finish our meals, gather our aching bodies, and take to the road.
Louise takes us away.
Midland melts into the ground and the landscape flattens into light brown dirt, pale yellow tufts of grass, and occasional groupings of stubby dark bushes. We don’t see plants like these in the north where we live. It’s familiar yet alien. It’s perfectly different yet the same. Louise grabs the road with her tires and tugs us along the edge of the world.
We talk about our family, our friends, our selves. We talk about life. Our heads fill with a never ending web spun of thought, people, love. Swirling. Cacophony. Connection.
You think you see the tapestry and then you look a little closer, and you find tiny details in the weave you’ve never seen before. You think it’s so unfathomable and then you understand that the seed grew into the seedling that grew into the tree, and suddenly you realize that nothing is here without something or someone being there before it. You’re looking out a window when you realize there’s another window and then another window inside that window.
My tiny little brain feels like it will burst of insanity. We’re talking about drinking in the world from a hose. Drink it and chew it and swish it all around. Split it into tubes and transform it into something that anyone can read with the right glasses. Study what seems random and unpredictable and floating and discover the invisible strand of thread holding the tetherless cloud to the ground.
For now, we set a more attainable yet simultaneously overwhelming goal. Ourselves.
We talk and talk and talk and then we say nothing. The music covers us envelopes us and washes our thoughts away for another day.
Donald Judd and The Chinati Foundation
By the time we get to Marfa it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
We have exactly half an hour to visit The Chinati Foundation, a foundation that houses Donald Judd’s concrete boxes.
Now I don’t know shit about art. Katya’s the art history major.
She’s the one that will tell you that Donald Judd was an artist who dedicated his life to minimalism, making boxes for years and years before he came here to the middle of the desert in Texas and declared Marfa the home to his unnamed series of larger-than-life concrete boxes. A masterpiece, lying along a half mile of desert plain against nothing but grass and dirt and sky.
Here’s what I’ll tell you.
We are there for half an hour but it feels like time is a concept that doesn’t even exist. We walk through these great big concrete boxes. Each box is the same size. Over eight feet tall and a few inches thick all around. Some of them have faces filled in and some of them don’t. Sometimes you turn and you think there will be concrete and instead your vision lurches through an open frame and you see the entire world for the very first time. The sun is setting. The edges cast shadows of dark and light that cut the surface.
The whole time I’m half there and I’m half not there at the same time.
One half of me’s heart racing, like a cheetah who’s run around the entire circumference of the world, only to come back to this place and find that time hasn’t passed at all. There are sets of boxes and we walk from one set to the next. Each time there are slight differences – the boxes are set at different angles, the faces are there or not there, you can walk through or you are blocked – and each time it is a shockingly different experience. There are no thoughts or words it is emotion. It is physical. We are a part of it and it is a part of us.
The other half of me is shaking my head. We are so gullible. We are tripping our heads off after driving eight hours to see a bunch of boxes dumped in a field in the middle of Texas. This makes no sense. This is stupid. The little voices are twittering at me as I run and I crouch and I race around and in and through the boxes. I roar back in the caverns of my mind because I don’t care. I don’t care if it’s made up or if it’s in my head because it doesn’t make it any less real as long as I let myself feel or at least try.
I mean I know I haven’t taken any drugs, but I feel high. Chalk it up to the altitude.
That’s all I’ll write about the boxes. It’s shockingly difficult to write more. Watch my Youtube video from my previous post for a self deprecating parody of what we experienced. We couldn’t keep it together, but we tried and we got close.
We stayed at El Cosmico, (where Beyonce stayed!) and we are not embarrassed to say we loved every second of it. We slept in a luxury trailer, the biggest of them all, aptly named The Paradise. At El Cosmico you can stay in a tepee, a yurt, a trailer, or a tent. That’s all I’ll write about that.
The Old Man from Marfa
The next day we leave our trailer park in search of food. (It really thrills me to be able to write that sentence.)
While everything is accessible within essentially one square mile, finding food is no small task. Most things in Marfa lack consistent hours – why shouldn’t they, with a population of 1900 – and the roads are wide with no sidewalks and no signs. “Marfa City Limits,” says a green sign at the edge of the town. That’s about it.
As we exit the park, a white pickup truck pulls up next to us. The well-taught children inside of us should have been wary, but instead of we turn our faces expectantly. An old man in the driver’s seat gestures us over.
“Why are you here?” he says.
We look at each other. “What do you mean?” We squint even though we’re wearing sunglasses.
“Well I’ve always wondered this! Young people, why in the world would you want to come here? Why are you in Marfa?”
The old man is jovial. (Thank goodness, because this conversation could have really taken a turn.) He really just genuinely cannot understand why young people would want to come here. Not in a million years.
“Um, you know, we wanted to see the art! We were curious what it was like.” I’m not sure we give a very good explanation.
“Why do you live here?”
“I grew up here!” Emphasis on the I, he says, laughing. “My wife wanted to move back here, so we did!”
“But why do you love it?”
He ponders for a second. “Well, I love running into young people like you!”
We smile and laugh together. A truck pulls up behind him. It’s time to say goodbye to our new friend.
We look at each other and giggle.
“He loves us!”
We’re on our way to find food.
We start out walking on the dirt on the side of the road since there aren’t any sidewalks before we migrate to walking in the middle of the road. It’s okay, it’s safe – we can hear cars coming a half a mile away from any direction.
It’s cloudy and bright at the same time. The sky is greyish white and the grass is in between green and yellow. The houses are run down and adorned with tiny shrines and bobbleheads and broken trailers. There are churches on every other corner and they are big and beautiful.
Everything is a shade of pale washed out pastel. We start calling it Texas Monet.
We look like video game characters, and we feel like them too. Katya’s wearing all black, topped with a baggy coat that looks like it could hold a sword or two and red heart-shaped sunglasses. I’m wearing an electric blue dress and big blue sunglasses with an orange purse. We strike a dramatic contrast to our pale surroundings. We’re walking and the road is so big it seems to have no end, like a game where the only point is to explore the world and collect things and there’s no real way to win or lose except when you die.
We find sustenance in a healthy helping of breakfast tacos at Boyz II Men. There’s no actual sign for the place, just a broken down old car in front with Boyz II Men spray painted across the side. We pay a higher price for our tacos because we’re from out of town. This is where I start shift into a keen sort of awareness. We’re outsiders.
There’s this store called The Wrong Store in Marfa. Whatever you say about it, these people know marketing. I mean, can you hear the name of that store and tell me you don’t want to go to it? On top of that, when you Google The Wrong Store, the Internet says “hours unknown.” The mystery is devastating.
The actual store doesn’t disappoint. The storefront has a huge ornate silver door. Inside, there is a life-sized wooden donkey carrying bundles of wooden money, surrounded by art on the walls, art hanging from the ceiling, and art lying on the table it’s standing on, which could seat 30-40 people at once.
Katya holds up a necklace. “How much is this?” She asks the store owner.
The store owner looks up from his seat. “Well, I don’t really know. I could maybe find that out for you,” he says, making no move to move.
My brain catches fire.
I feel my face heat up as a big part of me wants to flip the big stupid table with the big stupid donkey on top of it and scream just to break the calm. How can you possibly run a store and expect to make money but not seem to know or care how much your things cost? Another sliver of me can’t help but wonder, Who the heck lives in this town? If I work in banking and I’m surrounded by a world of rational decision makers, what sort of dreamy souls gravitate to a place like Marfa? Who are these people? How do they live like this? Is he really just like that or is he posing like that, and if he poses long enough does it really even matter that he’s posing?
We go to a second store. The shop girl sits at her desk and watches us browse. She interacts with us in all the ways you normally expect. “Oh, hello, where are you all from?”
“DC,” we say.
“Wow, that’s a long ways from here!”
I glance at her, full of taco and not really feeling like small talk – it’s never been my forte. Shop Girl has big Twiggy-like eyes and a waif-thin frame. She’s wearing a beige satin dress cut in vintage fashion, with a cream shawl. When I look closer, it looks like her hair hasn’t been washed for days.
I buy a candle and a t-shirt.
“Oh, these candles smell so good,” she says. She gets up to grab a bag from the back room. She comes back and opens the bag. She places my candle inside the bag. She moves very, very slowly. Like she only eats a cracker a day and she only gets up from her chair once every five hours.
Well, by the price of the candle she doesn’t need to make too many sales for this to be worthwhile.
Who are these people? How do they live?
No one in Marfa will ever ask you if you need a receipt. You simply don’t get one.
On Monday I take the metro to work. I walk through brick and high rise, I sit in a box (haha) that travels on rails, I get out of the box and I walk behind faceless humans with my headphones on. No one talks to anybody. Marfa feels really, really, far away.
It’s hard to believe that we were only just there. It’s also hard to believe we were there for less than 24 hours.
I’m writing to remember the feeling.
Of not knowing where or what the goal is, but wanting to search for it and make it your own. Of going somewhere that no one you know has been before. In a world where we are so attuned to popular opinion, and we have no basis for what we should think or feel, is the experience a purer expression of our own true selves?
Of quiet. We’re constantly gorging ourselves on our surroundings. How can we possibly make sense of it all? We must take shortcuts. Maybe people go to Marfa to experience the world in a deeper fuller way. If you’re not constantly dodging cars in the street or interacting with a hundred people a day, then maybe you have the space to sit back and stare at the sky and lose yourself swimming to the ever-stretching horizon, or hone in like a microscope on the lady walking on the street with narrow shoulders and a quietly patterned dress, surprisingly thick legs clicking along crisply in wooden clogs, pushing a bike alongside her with no sign of getting on it.
Maybe we need to take more time to drink it all in. No agenda, no purpose. Just be.
Maybe we’ll surprise ourselves, and find purpose in no purpose. Maybe that’s the whole point. Exploration for the sake of exploration until you find a morsel of truth.
If you’re still with me, this concludes my feeble attempt to put Marfa on a page.
Thank you for listening.