This town was named after a minor Dostoyevsky character and now it is known primarily for the Marfa Lights — strange aurora borealis like phenomena on that occur on the edge of town — and the permanent installation of a lot of work by minimalist sculptor Donald Judd.
I’d never been to this area, so when my friends Terry and Jo Harvey Allen announced that they’d be having their biennial wedding anniversary blowout here it seemed like a great opportunity to see them — and all the singer-songwriter and artist friends of theirs who will arrive. It’s also a chance to see the spectacular landscapes around here. Here is a view from Big Bend National Park:
I flew into Midland-Odessa, the twinned oil towns about 160 miles north of Marfa. I’d never seen them and anticipated viewing some oil field culture residue….lots full of drilling equipment in disarray, metal building manufacturers, “Bush Country” T-shirts, bobbing oil pumps scattered across the landscape and flatness. Lots of flatness:
I stopped at the Odessa Meteor Crater, a 600 foot wide, 20 foot deep depression just 5 miles off the highway. I was underwhelmed, but I guess when the landscape is as featureless as it is around here a 20-foot depression is a big deal.
Past Pecos the landscape began to change — dramatic igneous formations stuck up here and there, hills appeared on both sides of the road with remnants of lava forming spiny ridges along their tops. Here were prehistoric seas, swamps, jungles and volcanoes.
Marfa is in a dry flat area in between these outcroppings that you reach after winding through various hills and canyons. In some ways it is a typical small Texan town with a beautiful old central courthouse, a train track running through the middle, grain and cattle loading facilities…but that’s where the ordinariness ends. The main street here is lined with super contemporary Spartan-looking art galleries and the offices of at least 3 art foundations. There is a “good” restaurant with white tablecloths and a tasteful bookstore and coffee and wine bar wedged in between the post office, the barbershop and the NPR station offices.
My hotel — El Paisano — was where the cast of the film Giant stayed. I did not get the James Dean room or the Liz Taylor room. The lobby has 4 gift and tchotchke stores and a room with memorabilia of the famous film shoot. This month another film is shooting nearby. A period film directed by PT Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) starring Daniel Day Lewis and others. I run into the soundman that worked with me on True Stories many years ago in Dallas and is now working on that film.
It was during the prep for True Stories that I met Jo Harvey and Terry. They were recommended to me by Joan Tewkesbury, screenwriter of Nashville and a number of other films. I had approached Joan out of the blue for advice and thoughts, which she willingly gave. I knew I wanted my film to wear its narrative very lightly, and I saw Nashville (and some other Altman films) as very successful examples of this.
She said I HAD to see Jo Harvey’s performance work and listen to Terry’s music, which I did. We became friends and over many get-togethers in Santa Fe and elsewhere I got to know some of the Allens’ circle of friends — many of whom are also artists or singer-songwriters. Their New Year’s Eve parties would often end, as is common for Texas musicians (and Brazilian ones too) with a guitar being passed around and everyone who wrote or sang taking a turn and singing a song, often until late into the wee hours. (This tradition was continued here around the Thunderbird hotel fireplace, where most of the others stayed.)
It took me a bit to get used to this homey approach to music and performance. New Yorkers are sadly more “professional” in their attitude towards their art. We usually perform for money under controlled circumstances. We see ourselves as artistes whose performances are as controlled as we can manage them. (More on control later.) The camaraderie amongst musicians does exists up here in NY, but can you imagine a house party where Madonna picks up a guitar after dinner and serenades the drunken guests with a new song, and then passes the guitar to David Bowie? Not likely, I imagine, though who knows? But amongst Texans it’s the normal course of events. When I fist encountered and participated in these campfire sings I realized the meaning and resonance of these things goes deeper — to some extent this is a way of resisting the century-old trend of produced and commodified entertainment and culture.
We tend to see our culture and entertainment as something made by “others”, by “professionals”, which we then buy, attend, consume or purchase. It has been removed from us, our own culture. It’s made by those with distant professionals with the requisite levels of skill. craft and polish. When it was discovered that there was money to be made in marketing and packaging what was once locally produced and amateur popular music (and everything else) it slowly was insinuated that it was weird and uncool to make it at home with your friends — how unprofessional! It became considered strange and unlikely to create your own entertainment and to leave the TV off (as well as being unprofitable.) But in quite a few places this never took hold — Texas, Brazil, and Spain I can personally vouch for as examples of cultures where this process of creation and performance continued being transparent and public (well, amongst friends.)
A slightly more organized version of this would be presented this Friday and Saturday nights at a local bar here that is either called Ray’s or Joe’s depending on who you talk to. All the wedding anniversary hangers-on and stray visitors to town were invited, and the small cover charge went to a local clinic. (17K raised — enough to keep them afloat for the next year.) Terry did tell me to bring a guitar, so I was prepared. Again I felt a little the odd man out amongst the Texas singer songwriter royalty — Joe Ely, Guy Clarke, Will Sexton, Nora George, Ryan Bingham, Terry, Colin Gilmore, Bukka Allen, Butch Hancock and some others I didn’t know — some of whom sang later around the fire — but having joined this circle a number of times on various New Year’s eves and at other small benefits we can join on each other’s songs with something like comfort and ease.
Part of the attraction here is the local scenery — the landscape is big, harsh, desolate and spacious. The locals didn’t seem very interested, but some of us were determined to visit Big Bend National Park, which is only a couple of hours’ drive away. The Rio Grande cuts a swath through an area of mixed geology — more igneous extrusions, limestone uplifts with canyons cut through, sandstone formations, geologic folding and bending. (The Midland Odessa area is known locally as the Permian Basin, so geological terms are not as academic here as in many other places — geology will tell if there is oil underground or water for your cattle — it is destiny around here.)
A few of us head out at 7:30 and when we arrive there’s no one in the park — a big 8 entries today according to the gate lady — who seems sad when we drive on. We go for a bike ride from Castolon to Santa Elena canyon mouth and back.
It’s getting hot by the time we head back. Mike, from whom we hired the bikes in Terlingua, tells us of the changes since the border has been tightened up by Homeland Security and the recent wave of immigration paranoia. (That’s Mexico on the left wall of the canyon.) In many places the river is a lot wider and shallower than this, so it’s often no big deal to cross it. Global warming and drought — and water siphoned off for irrigation — have affected the river level — the river is almost pathetic at times. In the recent past it was usual for folks to cross the river for lunch in the town of Santa Elena (8km downriver from the canyon) or other little Mexican towns that had sprung up across the river up to sell gifts, supplies and lunches. For the most part that has ended due to increased “security” and the towns are now mostly dead. In many cases roads from both sides converged on opposite shores of the river — there being no auto bridge — and little bits of commerce were made. Now these roads are surreal outposts — like viewing stations at the former Berlin Wall — where people can look at the other side but can’t meet. (Apparently, there are some little settlements at the end of some dirt roads outside the park where one can still walk across on a rickety bridge to Mexico — I guess the Border Patrol conveniently ignores some spots — a mountain inside Big Bend state park is called Contrabando Mountain, which maybe admits more than many might like.)
500 National Guard troops are due in this area soon, a presence that will be strange and tense for many who live and work around here. There are Border Patrol stops on the 2 roads north out of the park — we were stopped and they looked at my Green Card. I noticed that they had employed a former Mexican immigrant to help stop further Mexicans from entering. Mike said that someone recently spotted a back SUV with official looking guys hanging down where the river spills out of the canyon into some cottonwoods and floodplain. It was discovered they were doing a feasibility study for the wall that now exists on the western portion of the U.S./Mexico border. Imagine a massive wall slicing through the scenery.
A photo of the wall from Ron Moak’s hiking blog:
and some of his thoughts:
Some 2650 winding trail miles to the north stands the Canadian border. Unlike this place, the Canadian border is ten yard wide clear cut that undulates its way across endless ridges along the 45th parallel. No walls, no patrols, no motion detectors and most important no fear. Just a friendly sign welcoming hikers to Canada. Why aren't there walls to keep those hokey loving Canadians out? Is it because, for the most part, they talk, look, act and think like us?
We head up to Chisos basin, which is pretty spectacular.
This is not the basin — this is the return road — the basin looks more like Zion National Park — because of its higher altitude the basin is cooler and greener.
Back to Marfa.