There’s Something about Marfa

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I sit back in the comfortable tan-leather seats of my rented SUV and enjoy the cool blast of the air-con. It provides complete respite from the blazing sun of the desert; the glass shields me from the tiny grains of sand carried by the wind, coating everything it touches in a fine layer of dust. The radio crackles and the country music fades as I drive further along Route 90 towards the small town of Marfa. It has been a while since I passed another vehicle, though the road is littered with the shredded tyres of previous visitors. I am surrounded by the flat yellow of the desert and can see the distant outline of mountains rising from horizon. Unidentifiable birds circle closer to the road, much nearer than they were earlier in the day, and I notice the outline of small victims of road kill dotted miserably along the side of the tarmac. All of a sudden, I am distracted by an eagle launching itself across the road from its perch atop a sunken fence post and I have to jam my foot down on the brake pedal to avoid a near collision. The bird swoops skywards and my breathing slowly returns to normal. I relax back into the trance like state the cruise control so easily provides, and allow the car to eat up the endless miles. The road does not change; the scenery, if anything, becomes drier and harsher. I am still alone on this road and I realise that I have actually managed to find myself, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. Marfa is not one of those places which feels as though it is in the middle of the desert, it actually is. My thoughts begin to drift and I wonder what would happen if I broke down here, or even ran out of gas, as I take note of the slowly sinking fuel gauge.

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Thankfully I make it to the small town next to Marfa with complete ease. There is a gas station sign, rusted and missing several letters, and I jump out to top up my depleted tank. The heat hits me as soon as I open my car door and for a minute I sit there, eyes closed, and soak up the warmth of the suns rays. I enjoy this feeling for a couple of minutes before I begin to fill up the car. I look around at the town as I wait for the huge tank to be filled; it is deserted. I am the only car at the gas station, and I feel the first prickle of unease. I have never been to a town so deserted, so far away from any large city or town before, and I am automatically slightly uncomfortable at the silence and complete lack of any sign of life or noise. I pay for my petrol slightly quicker than I need to and get back on the road, my sat-nav instructing me that I am only 12 minutes away from my destination. The road has become less flat, and I am driving higher, passing through valleys encased with great orange rock formations. As the road curves and slopes downwards I catch my first glimpse of Marfa; it is bigger than I had expected and spreads out before me as I begin to drive past houses and diners situated on the outskirts of the town. A motel sign, The Rita Inn, glows in the distance, swaying slightly in the late afternoon breeze. There are a couple of vacant parking lots outside the building, so I pull up and book a room for the night. I drive, much slower now, into the town, past the Dollar General store and alongside the railroad. I park up on a dusty side street and head into a teepee covered bar for an ice cold Coors Light. There are fairy lights netted over the ceiling and there is a wooden bar serving Coke, beer and nachos. There is also an old yellow school bus, the inside of which has been transformed into more tables and cushions, as well as a winding staircase up to a raised platform above the bar. Groups of young, tanned Texans sit around on the floor cushions, enjoying the early finish of a warm Friday afternoon, but there are also older generations here; men with ripped jeans, checked shirts and cowboy hats tipped back, their dogs stretched out on the floor, basking sleepily in the heat. I can hear the distant sound of train tracks rumbling and sure enough, several moments later there is a definitive clanging as what must be an extremely long freight train thunders by. I finish my drink and wander out along the quiet pavements in the direction of the railroad. The level crossing is up again and the few waiting cars are driving off. Although quiet, there is a definite life to this town, a pulse which reverberates throughout. I walk around the quiet streets, which are dotted with thoughtfully placed art installations, and feel a sense of calm I have never experienced before. I realise that this feeling of peace, a complete lack of any worry, is a direct result of spending time in a location which exists in complete and utter isolation. There is no shortcut, no easy way of getting to Marfa. Whether you start your journey from Austin in the East, or El Paso in the West, you have to commit to a solid amount of driving. It is a destination you have to journey for some time to get to, and because of this, the beauty of the town itself seems all the greater. There is an early evening glow to Marfa now, one that only comes from being in the desert, under a cloudless sky and light wind. The sky slowly changes to a dusky pink and the town takes on a new personality. Deserted water pumps, rusting in their age, become objects of great beauty; icons of the past. A gigantic white water tower, the black lettering of Marfa clearly visible from a great distance, transforms into a work of art. The small bars and restaurants lining the streets twinkle under strings of lights tangled into trees, illuminating the way along a road devoid of street lamps. Despite the quietness of the town, everywhere is full. Everywhere people are drinking, eating and laughing, all experiencing that feeling of the simple joy to be found when living in complete isolation. Marfa is a place to forget worries, upset and hurt. The town is alive, this small deserted town a tranquil oasis where people come to experience pure, unadulterated happiness.

Words by Laura Pendlebury / Photography by Mirko Nicholson

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