Around the Big Bend

The magnificently solitary landscape of West Texas is studded with surprises

E -- "the uninhabited land" -- is what the Spanish called the Big Bend region of Texas, the wing on the western side of the state, which stretches east from El Paso, at the wingtip, to the Pecos River, and south from New Mexico to the Rio Grande. The epithet still fits. The loneliness of West Texas is obvious from the map. West of San Angelo the web of roads tangled over most of the rest of Texas clears away, leaving only the I-10 and a few loose strings of two-lane highways connecting tiny towns in the vast white space. In life, for most of the year this space is a palette of yellows and browns, punctuated by greens. One mountain range or another -- the Glass, the Chinati, the Barrilla, the Sierra Diablo, the Christmas -- is always in sight, but you can drive on these roads for half an hour at a stretch without passing another car. We've marveled at the enormous sky throughout the Far West, but that of West Texas is especially stunning, alive with pink and blue Turneresque strokes and swirls.

West Texas, in its neglect and its isolation, retains the hard splendor characteristic of the West. It seems more "western" than Montana or Arizona or New Mexico, so much of which have become, variously, glamorous, suburban, and artsy. All of this unpopulated territory makes for great hiking, backpacking, bird watching, and horseback riding, but this region, where the American West and South meet Mexico, is also interesting culturally. Each town has a distinct character, several have atmospheric hotels, and it's not hard to find good food. The Big Bend region also has among the largest and most important permanent installations of contemporary art in the world.

Don't go to West Texas, however, if you hate car travel. Commercial airlines fly only as far as points on the periphery, El Paso or Midland/Odessa, and then you have to drive. On the three-and-a-half-hour trip from El Paso to Marfa, in the heart of the region, the colors of the landscape shift distinctly again and again with the changes in altitude. Bare brown earth gives way to grasses colored mustard, ocher, or wheat and stuck with yuccas and an occasional Joshua tree. We first stumbled on Marfa, on its near-mile-high prairie, seven years ago during the dusk of a summer day, when we stopped at a roadside place for enchiladas. This cluster of 2,500 people, with its two-block main street bisected by railroad tracks, its turn-of-the-century adobe and wood-frame houses and Second Empire county courthouse, seemed to us hardly attached to the rest of the country or to the decade. We wandered in the dry, still air down streets that petered out quickly, giving way in every direction to the grasslands.

MARFA is an eccentric place. Starting out life as a watering stop on the Texas and New Orleans Railroad, it was named -- the story goes -- by an engineer's wife after a servant woman in Dostoevski's The Brothers Karamazov. What's more, there are the "mystery lights." By the side of the highway nine miles out of town a state historical marker denotes the official viewing spot for these glowing orbs, which people since the 1800s have reported seeing dancing along the mountains to the south. If you park at dusk and stand on the hood of your car, you might see them -- and then again, you might not. Although theories ranging from UFOs to inversion layers abound, no one has yet hit on a scientifically satisfying explanation.

Marfa was a part of the Wild West for as long as any of the West remained wild; Mexican bandits raided the surrounding ranches as late as 1919. Today one of the town's largest employers is the U.S. Border Patrol. But next door to the patrol's sector headquarters is the Chinati Foundation. Named for the nearby mountain range, the foundation was begun by the late Donald Judd, arguably the most important American Minimalist, who moved to Marfa in 1976 to escape the New York art world, and lived there until his death, in 1994. Convinced that most contemporary art was shortchanged and misunderstood, particularly when crowded museums exhibited single pieces out of context, Judd wanted to create large, permanent installations inextricably linked to their environment. With Chinati and his extraordinary private collections (many of which are not, unfortunately, now open to the public), Judd put into practice his theories about how art should be experienced, including his idea that some art "should be placed and never moved again."

Over time Judd imposed his vision and idiosyncrasies on Marfa, transforming much of the town into a sort of giant studio and private museum as he bought land and structures in which to make and install his own art and to house works by other artists of his generation -- Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg, Dan Flavin, John Wesley, John Chamberlain, Larry Bell, and Yayoi Kusama, among others. He bought a 1930s bank building and furnished the upstairs offices with early-modern furniture by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Gerrit Rietveld, and Alvar Aalto. He converted the railroad depot, once used for wool and mohair shipments, into a display space for Chamberlain's hulking sculptures, and arranged his 10,000-volume library in what was once an airplane hangar. Each of Judd's pursuits commands its own space. He used an old hotel as his print studio, one office building as his architecture studio, and another as his ranch office. To write in, he bought a Craftsman house that had been built for Katherine Anne Porter by her uncle. He put a bed of his own design in every workspace, because he didn't think he should have to leave his work in order to rest. The exteriors of the buildings Judd used remain just as they were originally, so the artist's influence is almost invisible from the street.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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