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Travel Around the Big Bend

The magnificently solitary landscape of West Texas is studded with surprises

by Benjamin and Christina Schwarz

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

EL despoblado -- "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.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More travel writing in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Desert Hideaway," by Ian Frazier (February, 2000)
A visit to the sunstruck landscape of Death Valley, and to the isolated cabin where Charles Manson lived in 1969.

"The Wild New West," by Thomas E. Ricks (June, 1999)
Daredevils, coots, and cowboy poets love Moab, Utah -- and so does at least one all-American family.

"Lewis and Clark and Us," by Cullen Murphy (March, 1998)
The expedition helped to forge a great nation. How does it hold up as a family vacation?

"White Snow, Red Rock," by Peter Davison (October, 1997)
On foot among the canyons around Sedona, Arizona.

Related links:

Big Bend Country
The official Web site of the Big Bend's tourist board. Offers information about food, lodging, events, and attractions.

Big Bend River Tours
Information about a service that offers canoeing, rafting, hiking, and driving tours in the Big Bend area.

Texas Highways
The online edition of Texas Highways, "The Travel Magazine of Texas." Offers descriptions of state attractions, recommended road trips, and events listings.

The West
The companion Web site to a PBS documentary about the history of the American West. Includes archival documents and photographs, an interactive timeline, and biographies of historic figures.

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.

The Chinati Foundation is housed in Fort D. A. Russell, a former U.S. Cavalry post that has been somewhat renovated to suit the art it displays. By far the most significant work here, Judd's 100 milled-aluminum boxes with identical dimensions but varied interiors, is installed in two enormous artillery sheds, the walls of which Judd made mostly windows. Even to those, like us, who are fairly ignorant about contemporary art, these rooms are magnificent workings of geometry and light, arrangements and rearrangements of rectangles, shadows, and unexpectedly glowing surfaces. The buildings, used during World War II by German prisoners of war, are strikingly simple, but the concrete, iron, brick, and glass of their construction -- as well as the huge Texas sky, the sea of grass, and the distant mountains framed by the windows -- are clearly integral to the piece.

In the seven years since our first visit to Marfa this isolated town has attracted some artists, architects, designers, and gallery owners who've brought with them elements of a hipper world. Around the corner from the old furniture showroom, featuring brown La-Z-Boys, is a designer's furniture gallery with chic lettering on the window that reads Marfa, Texas; Brooklyn, New York. Although the Marfa Opera House has long been vacant, and to see a movie you must drive half an hour, you can now sip cappuccino and peruse the American Poetry Review right in the middle of town. For the moment, this infusion of sophistication enhances rather than overwhelms Marfa's offbeat identity, but the tipping point may soon be reached.


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Benjamin Schwarz is a correspondent for The Atlantic. Christina Schwarz's first novel, Drowning Ruth, will be published this fall.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Around the Big Bend - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 42-48.