The artist and hipster oasis that is Marfa has long been on my list of places to check out. The quirky, liberal, dusty town of nearly 1,700 residents is almost three hours driving from El Paso, and 6 and a half hours from Austin. Outsiders trekking to far West Texas will likely say Marfa is in the middle of nowhere. But let’s be clear: Marfa’s location is not the boondocks. If you reside in Marfa, or the equally hip, charming, progressive, neighboring towns of Alpine and Ft. Davis, you know you are, absolutely, somewhere.
Distance hasn’t prevented art, film, and music lovers, along with road tripping and cross country adventurers, and notably---Hollywood crews---from detouring off speedier courses just to pass through this winsome town. With family living in the Dallas area, and my own discomfort with traveling by plane during a pandemic, I decided I would take a road trip from Los Angeles, making Marfa a stop in both directions. Marfa’s cinematic-meets-high fashion editorial–meets-peak Instagram depiction has its place in pop culture history, and I was finally going to see it for myself.
To start Marfa’s history at its “founding,” in the early 1880's, when it was a railroad water stop, is to omit the fact that Native tribes, specifically the Jumanos, Comanche, and Apache, were here long before. Today, their surviving descendants, many who are older and poorer than their enthusiastic new neighbors, still live here. They live and work in all the spaces between the ones that pop and dazzle for tourists.
Strolling the wide Texas streets of Marfa, I noticed hip-looking Adobe is Political posters. My quick search of this statement found that the influx of cool, creative, city folks from Brooklyn, the Bay Area and other places, were delighted by the opportunity to purchase or build “cheap” homes using the low cost and ancient, yet totally de rigueur building material. The high taxation on adobe homes means that locals can’t afford to remain where they’ve always been. It's therefore understandable to see signs around town that read “Locals Only.” I notice another Warhol-style reminder stating that Marfa is a place with no ventilators.
What makes Marfa charming is how small and simple things are.
There is no hospital in the entire Presidio County. Bilingual signage instructing people wear a mask is a ubiquitous and well respected feature around town. 1956 was the year Hollywood hit Marfa to film Giant, the Western drama starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. In 2007, Marfa was the backdrop for There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. The 1970's and onward brought Generation X and Y and millennial artist types. Brooklyn artist, Donald Judd, migrated out of the Big Apple and into the Big Country for more space, cheaper rent, and some quiet.
A scene from Giant starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson, as seen in my bedroom at El Paisano Hotel. It was filmed on the Ryan Ranch, west of the town of Marfa.
If you were sojourning to pre COVID-19 Marfa and its surroundings, the reason you made the trek to explore Vogue’s list of exciting visuals, was likely to check out some cool art and attend epic annual festivals while eating food truck tacos and snapping iPhone pics of the infamous Prada store art installation. Traveling to Marfa now, during the pandemic, panoramic and gritty iPhone-candy still abounds, minus the museum and gallery pulse. Marfa has been fortunate to have had very few cases of COVID-19. Presidio County took the spread seriously from the beginning. And because of contact tracing, the community knows exactly which local family returning from out of town brought coronavirus into town.
With careful control, here’s what you can and can’t see and do while in Marfa.
Ride or Stride
Bikes are the community mode of transport in every hipster town. Unfortunately, the traditional bike shops of Marfa, Choss Shop + Cafe, 103 W San Antonio Street, and Bike Marfa are temporarily closed due to the pandemic. For those staying at the chic Thunderbird, 601 W Antonio Street, and bohemian El Cosmico, 802 S Highland Avenue, there are sanitized bikes to rent. Otherwise, Marfa is delightfully walkable. The wide streets make it easy to keep a social distance, and require no more than a mile in every direction to see most of Marfa by foot.
Third Wave Coffee
You won’t find a Starbucks in Marfa. The community caters to my pretentious coffee palate with pricy fancy cups of Joe.
The $7 lavender oat milk latte is hard for me to resist at Frama, at 120 N. Austin, and why not drop another $5 on a bottle of CBD H2O? Order online in advance or order, masked, at their little window.
The menus at Do Your Thing.
My iced horchata latte and Jerusalem toast purchased at Do Your Thing.
Eat Your Heart Out
Do Your Thing, at 201 E. Dallas Street, quickly became my go-to. Located behind a lumberyard, there’s plenty of outdoor seating for keeping great distance from others, and an order window keeps customers more than six feet from the barista. Their preference is for you to order online, but they’ll take walk-ups, and have two menus of hip toasts and artisanal lattes. I live for their Jerusalem toast, and struggled to choose between the sarsaparilla, turmeric, or horchata latte.
At The Sentinel, 209 W El Paso Street, the menu changes to keep things fresh, but it’s always going to be something to the tune of a deletable taco or burrito. Distance seating is in abundance out back, pre-orders online are appreciated, but walk-ups and to-go orders are all the rage.
Those in need of burrito consistency, however, have Marfa Burrito, 104 E Waco Street, where Ramona, the Burrito Queen of Texas, hand roles the tortillas and recommends adding Cheetos for elevated flavor. Since the pandemic, burritos are only available to go.
There are more options for meals during the day than in the evening in COVID-19 Marfa. Fortunately, there is good PM ambiance and vibes outside on the patio of the El Paisano Hotel’s Jett’s Grill, located at 207 N. Highland Avenue.
Open early all day and into the night, their Texas beef, whether pistachio-crusted sirloin or the Lone Star State-sized black angus burger, hit the spot, as did items from a decent menu of mixologist-quality cocktails. The Water Spot, 1300 W. San Antonio Street, offers its share of local, fresh, homemade dishes and cocktails, morning, noon and night. Also open for pick up is Al Campo, located at 200 S. Russell Street, with both menu and hours that are limited during the pandemic.
In Marfa, cooking at home is helped by The Get Go. The market at 208 South Dean Street is where you can get your fix of locally-grown produce, and other local products.
The Art of Shopping
The tastefully appointed, protective accoutrements at Communitie.
Shopping in Marfa can mean scoring a high quality mix of locally-made items, and every shop has an entry table replete with chic bottles of hand sanitizer. Some even have extra masks. Many have hand sanitizer on every surface in sight, with firm invitations to use often.
Kick things off by getting your Stetson and modern cowboy shirt on at Communitie, 122 N Highland Avenue.
For high design and handmade goods, especially from local and transplanted artists, there’s The Marfa Store, 204 E Dallas Street. Everything, of course, feels right about the cheeky and quirky Wrong, 110 N Highland Avenue. The store and gallery are very well-curated by the awesomely named Buck Johnston and Camp Bosworth, with art, photography, jewelry, ceramics, books, stationary, and more. It is hard not to be seduced by the allure of plant medicine, and Ocotillo Botanica, 115 Highland Street, hand produces locally sourced from-the-desert tinctures and potions for many-a-remedy. Chaparral has energy boosting, pain relieving and gut busting, yucca root. And if you’ve got the time, score some custom leather shoes at Cobra Rock, 107 S Dean Street.
Marfa’s Art Scene
The Judd Foundation.
What brought outsiders to Marfa in the first place is the art. Museum and gallery visits are sadly absent from any Marfa trip right now, due to COVID. At of this time of this article, nearly everything is temporarily shut down or open by appointment only. Biggies: The Chinati Foundation, 1 Calvary Road, and The Judd Foundation, 104 S Highland Avenue, are closed. (I heard buzz about pre-arranged solo reservations and access to some outdoor installations, but it was unclear.) The Brite Building showroom, 107-109 N. Highland Avenue, has new hours and takes coronavirus precautions by having only one to four visitors during four one-hour slots each day. This can be reserved via email: email@example.com. Face masks and gloves are required. Awesomely, Rule Gallery, 204 E. San Antonio Street, is open by appointment and also takes walk-ins too. Masks and social distancing are required, and sanitizer is there for the ready. The current work of Renluka Maharaj is not to be missed.
I am nothing short of obsessed with Renluka Maharaj’s family pieces.
Esperanza Vintage Art Shop, 902 West San Antonio, is tiny and inviting, with well-curated vintage pieces and works by the artist Richard Kurtz, who is typically available on site. Store hours are limited, but the owners live next door, and simply request a text to 505-204-5729, if you’re nearby and curious.
Artwork by Richard Kurtz, displayed on his wife's vintage suitcases.
Street art by Richard Kurtz.
Elmgreen and Dragset’s now infamous art installation, Prada Marfa, always and forever available for photo opps.
Sleep With The Stars
I stayed two nights in Marfa and both spots had good COVID-19 protocol in place, the latter being the most diligent.
For one night, I stayed at the iconic and storied, El Paisano Hotel, 207 Highland Street. I chose the smaller room that James Dean stayed in while filming Giant. There is also the suite Elizabeth Taylor stayed in, which overlooks the central courtyard, and the Dennis Hopper, 2-bedroom suite, with views of the pool and landmark Presidio County courthouse.
I also crashed at The Lincoln, 105 W Lincoln Street, excitedly opting to experience the 1950s bomb shelter conversion. It goes without saying that it felt perfectly on-brand and safe to make a West Texas nuclear fallout my choice for staying safe and contained during a pandemic!