Southwest Texas can be a very foreboding place. It is home to dry winds and, for much of the year, scorching heat. Temperatures’ regularly reach over 120 degrees. Not surprising, it is not over populated. In fact driving down Hiway 10 across it can be a lonely experience. But as desert aficionados are so fond of saying and quick to remind us, it can be full of surprises.
In southwest Texas there is a small town called Marfa. It is a combination ranch town and arts community. It’s major claim to fame and notoriety came in 1956 when James Deans last film, “Giant” was filmed there. Actors and crew resided in the now refurbished Hotel Paisano.
Marfa is also known for a desert phenomenon referred to as the “Marfa Lights.” These are mysterious bouncing lights out in the desert that can be viewed from a vantage point around ten miles from town. That is on the way to a slightly larger, and quite hip, town called Alpine and about an hour from Great Bend Park. A roughneck from the oil rigs near Fort Stockton had told me about Alpine and Marfa last spring.
Ranches extend for hundreds of miles in all directions. One cowboy told me that at a ranch where he once worked it took four days to ride across the property. There is a vastness out there that seems to scream “Texas.” T.R. Fehrenbach’s excellent tome on the history of the Lone Star state tries to describe it but, even he comes up short.
The arts community is not as spread out although much of the work reflects the dry range that seems to go on forever. The major focus is not what you would expect. It’s not south west colors a la Santa Fe or Taos. In fact it all centers on the Chinati Foundation founded by minimalist Donald Judd. It seems that Judd passed through Marfa while in the army in the early 1950’s. He spent the next twenty plus years working in New York City establishing himself as a dynamic innovator. Then, in the early 1970’s he packed it all in and moved to Marfa. He acquired quite a bit of property for very little cash including buildings in town and an old Fort outside of town. These properties currently hold most of his work as well as that of two other artists. Judds commitment was to make as few changes as possible to the existing buildings. When he did make changes they kept with the theme and design. The buildings with their wide open spaces also reflect the geography of the area. The most famous pieces housed here are his aluminum boxes. There are dozens of these large boxes, each with a different design that lead the visitor down a very unusual journey.
At the other end (literally and figuratively) of this dusty town is a small square shaped building which is home to the “Lost Horse Saloon.” It is as dry and dusty inside as outside. It consists of one large room, a half a dozen pool tables, a wine selection that consists of a red and a white, sparse decorations consisting of worn out tack and cowboy gear and some slightly damaged stools. Get the picture? The proprietor of this establishment is one Ty Mitchell. Ty is a cowboy. The real thing. He works for a ranch and in down time, usually before calving season, he tends bar.
He is from Texas and has cowboyed since getting out of the Marines in his early twenties. My guess is that he is forty something but he appears to be sixty something. He walks with a list from all the broken bones that are occupational hazards and has lots of hard miles on his face. He is tall and lean with a Sam Elliott moustache. Even without the hat, boots and spurs no one would wonder what he does for a living.
Ty and I seemed to hit it off and after a couple of bottles of red wine we agreed that I would play in his saloon the following night. The starting time was vague and when I showed up there was a small group of men-cowboys all. There was not a woman to be seen. They were shooting pool and laughing it up. These days I seem to have become too old and dumb to be intimidated. Besides I had played in worse places than this. At that moment, however, I could not recall when and where.
Well, I went right at it and began picking out my old folk songs and stuff I had written, mostly about the road. These guys were very tough but there Mother’s, God bless them, raised them right. To my amazement, after every song the pool sticks went down on the table and they clapped. Not only that but they made a few requests and kept by beer glass and tip jar full. The music eventually ended and it thinned out a bit. A few of us hung on telling jokes and answering questions about travels and hometowns. As I recall we all had a lot to say about all of our many marriages. And then we all told stories. I am pretty confident that none of them, including mine, were completely true. But we all knew that.
I suppose if there is a lesson here (there probably isn’t) it’s never assume anything. A windy old Texas town can have lots of surprises.
Until next time…..