There isn’t always much to do in Marfa. If so inclined, you can take part in the local pastimes and either rent a vintage typewriter and spend your days fuelled by coffee and cigarettes until you write the next On the Road—or start designing concrete blocks like Donald Judd. The gift shop in the Hotel Paesano is always worth a look. The Chinati Foundation’s impressive art collection should be visited at least once, although I prefer the old artillery sheds the art is housed in to Judd’s aluminium cubes, and I’ve always liked James Turrell’s peaceful sky rooms more than his lurid light installations. Judd’s wooden furniture and pivoting doors betray a talent for design that his art does not. But when you see a dust storm approaching your El Cosmico tepee or you start to bake in your airstream trailer, it’s best to get out of town.
The McDonald Observatory is the finest antidote to dust, heat, and disenchantment with an endlessly flat land. Our first year there we bundled up in every bit of clothing we had as the sun went down, and went to one of the Observatory’s ‘Star Parties’, where we saw Jupiter, Polaris, the Little Dipper, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Persius, Hercules, Pegasus, Draco and the Sea Monster. We learned that the Sun is in an unusually long Solar Minimum. We learned that the Earth wobbles on its axis and saw the two stars that used to be North Stars. A warning: dress as you would for a trip with Shakleton and beware javelinas darting in front of your headlights on the dark drive back down the mountain.
If you’re in the mood to go swimming, or want a method of bathing easier than El Cosmico’s rusted bathtubs and cold showers, Balmorhea State Park offers a perfectly clear natural pool, twenty-five feet deep, populated with fish and turtles. At nineteen I attempted to conquer my fear of deep water by jumping right off the high dive. It didn’t work. I admit I’ve never been back.
Then there is that un-miss-able pilgrimage to Prada Marfa. Do not be fooled by the name – this little art installation is on Highway 90, beyond the town of Valentine, a little further than the point where you think you must have gone too far and consider turning back. Once there you can sit on its front steps, look in its windows, or race tumbleweeds over the pale, flat land around it.
At night we have, on occasion, ventured out to see the Marfa Mystery Lights. The first year we did see them, white and red, flickering in the distance, moving, dividing, coming closer and disappearing. We haven’t seen them since.