Getting Weird Where Time Stands Still: Marfa, Texas

“I’ve been here about a year and a half,” says my tour guide, a young yoga instructor who also works at this art museum on the grounds of a former army base in Marfa, Texas. “It feels longer.”

Marfa is like that. Pulled from obscurity by the Chinati Foundation, an art museum started by contemporary sculptor Donald Judd, it’s now a tiny raft of a town in the sea of the high desert of West Texas, an island of civilization where you can buy feed for your livestock around the block from a gourmet grilled cheese shop.

This October will be the 25th anniversary of the creation of Chinati. With the occasion comes some perspective on what’s changed and what remains the same here in Marfa, where time seems to move more slowly than the puffy cotton clouds dotting the deep blue canvas of the giant Texas sky.

Traveling the American Road – Marfa, Texas

Marfa continues to boom. El Cosmico is the second hotel from the owner of Thunderbird, if you can really call it a hotel. It’s more a hippie RV park, with refurbed trailers for rent, yurts and teepees and, when those sell out, space for tents. There’s a hammock grove, in the shade, where architects play euchre, weighing down the cards with wooden pieces from a chess set. (Chess is too cerebral, I think, for people hanging out in hammock groves.) The showers and toilets are open to the air.

Miniature Rooster is a new restaurant along the main drag of Highway 90, with fantastic curry, steak and chicken and waffles. Run by two business partners who met at The Inn at Little Washington–another awesome kitchen in the middle of nowhere–Uday Huja moved to Marfa from Las Vegas to open with his friend Rocky Barnette, a native of Asheville who’d already staked a claim in West Texas.

Anagrammatically named coffee shop Frama is next to the only laundromat in town, Tumbleweed, a small operation just around the corner from Padre’s, a dark bar set in a former feed store with an outstanding game selection, everything from air hockey to Pac Man, and an old-time juke box with rock and funk hits for the times when live acts aren’t in the house.

But it’s not all hip spots here: Marfa Burritos is a small kitchen where Border Patrol agents, plumbers and travel writers sit around tables protected by clear plastic tablecloths to devour tortillas filled with beans, steak and hot sauce for $4 a pop.

On a Friday night, “everyone” is out, hitting bars like Padres and Planet Marfa, catching bands, playing pool and ladder golf. A 24-hour play festival is on, too, with teams working through the night to conceive, write, rehearse and execute seven-minute productions. They’ll hit the stage on Saturday night, after I’ve already left for points west.

In the morning, I see the weekend thespians out by the rail tracks, practicing lines under the farmer’s market canopy, just a short walk from the grain elevator, the Paisano Hotel and the silver water tower, looking like stage dressing from a backlot parked here to lend the authentic feel of a West Texas whistle stop. The tower, stamped with MARFA in black, is the tallest building in town.

The famous ghost lights of Marfa, Texas

Way out in West Texas, near the sleepy little town of Marfa, there is an unexplained phenomenon that can often be seen on the darkest of nights, when strange, colorful lights appear in the sky, giving the surrounding landscape an otherworldly glow. These “ghost lights” of Marfa have been manifesting themselves for decades, with some saying they date back all the way to the 1800’s, and yet they still remain a mystery today.

Described as roughly the size of a basketball, the lights generally appear along U.S. Route 67, just east of Marfa, near an area called Mitchell Flat. The orbs have been reportedly spotted in a variety of colors, including white, red, green, yellow, and sometimes even blue. The strange lights are said to hover just above the ground, generally motionless, although some witnesses claim to have seen them moving very slowly, and in regular patterns.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to predict when the lights will appear, but sighitngs do occur, on average, between 10 and 20 times a year. Those that have seen them claim that they may hang around for as little as a few seconds or a long as several hours, with their appearance coming anytime between dusk and dawn.
There are a number of theories as to what exactly the lights are. Some say that they are reflected from traffic moving through the area, while others blame them on some unusual astronomical phenomenon or atmospheric disturbance. The existence of the lights has been confirmed by several independent studies however, there just doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what they are exactly.

For Marfa, the lights are another tourist attraction for a town that has a thriving art community and plenty of outdoor activities as well. There is an official viewing platform for the lights and even a plaque to mark the best place to look for the odd phenomenon, and each year, thousands of X-Files fans drop by just wanting to believe. So, if you head to West Texas, pack an open mind, and be ready for some fun in the dark.