Open Road

Photo Essay: a Marfa Pilgrimage

Bright lights, small city

By Alese Pickering August 3, 2014 Published in the August 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Dust devils, one by one, then two by two, danced across a vast expanse of yucca palm and agave in the Chihuahuan Desert. We were on Route 90, the last leg of a 10-hour drive, the sun setting over the mountains, bright pinks and oranges illuminating vast, wispy clouds. Off to the east, an enormous, almost supernatural V of blue rays rose from the hills, shooting out of the hazy peach horizon, dissolving into the darker blue stratosphere. We’d only just reached Marfa and already I had goose bumps.

My boyfriend and I had been itching to visit the west Texas town for years, ever since I’d first read about the collection of Donald Judd’s minimalist sculptures there. Friends too told tales of annual pilgrimages to tiny, isolated Marfa, a place of mysterious ghostly lights and deep quiet punctuated only by the occasional train rumbling through town. 

We quickly fell victim to the town’s tranquility. Mornings, we woke early to catch sunrises before visiting the natural spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park or Prada Marfa, the faux Italian boutique-cum-freestanding art installation outside of town. Hours melted away at the Chinati Foundation compound as we marveled at Judd’s outdoor concrete pieces and indoor metal works, along with a large collection of Dan Flavin’s light installations. John Chamberlain’s sculptures constructed of car scraps made for a mesmerizing visit downtown, as did the giant camera obscura by artist Zoe Leonard (see sidebar).

Lunch meant food trucks like the Boyz 2 Men Taco Trailer, run by quirky Houston ex-pat David Beebe, and FAT Lyles, with its decadent pastrami sandwiches and fried Brussels sprouts. Evenings were spent lazily nibbling slices at the excellent Pizza Foundation, drinking cold beer, and playing rummy. And late-night jaunts were a necessity too, what with the stars and planets on view at the McDonald Observatory, not to mention the legendary Marfa Lights (yes, they are real).

The decision was made to rough it in a safari tent on our last night, and by rough it I mean in a tent complete with electricity and a queen-sized bed at El Cosmico, a local teepee hotel/campground. The two of us lay in hammocks surrounded by a grove of trees, sipping wine under the moon as we savored one more cool and starry evening in the desert. Yes, there was the occasional fear of finding a scorpion in a boot, but it was the perfect finale to our trip nonetheless. We’d hardly begun the trip home from Marfa when I made a vow to return. The sight of one more dust devil was all it took.

The eastern sky at sunset

Swimming at the San Solomon Springs at Balmorhea State Park

Donald Judd’s huge concrete sculptures at Chinati

The train rumbling toward town

A Saturday evening Star Party at McDonald Observatory. Courtesy McDonald Observatory

A hammock grove at El Cosmico

One of the El Cosmico’s tents

Sunrise at the Marfa Lights viewing area

David Beebe and his Boyz 2 Men Taco Trailer

Prada Marfa


Balmorhea State Park

McDonald Observatory

Chinati Foundation

Prada Marfa
1.4 miles northwest of Valentine, just off US Route 90, 37 miles northwest of Marfa


Boyz 2 Men Taco Trailer

FAT Lyle’s 

Pizza Foundation


El Cosmico

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