Tour Manager’s Guide: Marfa

TM's Guide Marfa
Hi. My name is Danny. I’ve been touring with bands for some time and want to tell you about some of the places we’ve been. I know, I’m missing some important things from these cities but this is just what I’ve had time to see. If you have suggestions regarding where to go in your beloved hometown the next time I’m hurtling through in a van filled with drunk people, please let me know.

My relationship with contemporary art is best articulated by explaining my visit to Palais de Tokyo in Paris. My friend Vincent, a man that fits every stereotype American conservatives have about the French, was obsessed with taking me to this contemporary art museum and eventually I obliged. The museum consists of a cavernous white room that looks like it was the inspiration for all Apple retail stores. After walking past “pieces” that consisted of like rocks on metal tables and shovels suspended from the ceiling we arrived at a sign that said, “special exhibit”.

Looming behind the sign was an industrial sized refrigerator and a dude that was somehow more French than Vincent guarding the entrance. After Vincent and turbo French man exchanged pleasantries, the keeper of this refrigerator gave a long explanation of the piece in French. Francophile I may be, fluent in French I am not, so I smiled and nodded profusely. When the explanation was done Vincent turned to me and said, “It’s um, it’s how do you say… a refrigerator… it’s um very cold. And um you go inside and then you feel very cold. And this man he lets you in and then he um… how do you say… he lets you out.” Surely something was lost in translation. I responded with a polite, “Wow, tres cool, let’s go in now!” and we entered the refrigerator. It was big, freezing, and filled with old computers. Mind you it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside and we’d just walked 30 minutes to get to this place so my patience was quickly evaporating. After a minute the door was opened and we were released. My friend and the refrigerator doorman slowly nodded at each other in somber amazement. We left. For the rest of the night Vincent droned on and on about how great it was until I finally screamed, “OH COME ON. IT WAS A FUCKING REFRIGERATOR!” Vincent was beside himself and insisted that I didn’t understand the piece. True, I most likely did not. And come to think of it I pretty much never understand what’s going on at art galleries. I nod my head and smile but for the most part I want to have gone to the museum… not go to the museum. Taking me to a contemporary art museum is like showing my dad old Aphex Twin. He will be polite and aware that it’s of value but eventually be like, “Can we please turn on some James Taylor?”

Thus you can understand I approached Marfa, TX with equal parts curiosity and ambivalence. Curious because people will not shut up about the place and ambivalent because the above. If you’ve been living under a stupid rock for the last 30 years, Marfa is a TINY town in far west Texas, south of El Paso that fancies itself a haven for contemporary art. Getting there requires determination. Driving from any city in central Texas takes at least 7 hours. If that sounds unbearable you can fly into El Paso and drive two hours. Tours are rarely if ever routed through the city and my wariness of psychedelics meant I missed out on the nearly obligatory college drug excursion to Marfa. That’s good though because students return from this “life changing” experience almost more annoying than when they return from studying abroad in Spain. For all these reasons I hadn’t ventured out west. But like Palais de Tokyo, I was game. Therefore when my lovely girlfriend announced she’d booked us a “glamping” vacation for Valentines in Marfa I said, “let’s do this”. Glamping is like camping without all the naughty bugs and annoying grizzly bears. It’s less Leo in The Revenant and more Xerces in 300, albeit with more tasteful décor. Our choice for glamping was the El Cosmico. It’s a large field littered with decked out tipis, tents, yurts, and air stream trailers. At the entrance of El Cosmico there’s a check in office that has a store filled with cute items and your southern hipster essentials like Topo Chico and Mexican Coca Cola. The front desk is staffed 8 – 8, there’s a fire pit out front, hammocks all around, bikes to rent, and adorable little teacup hot tubs. I think we paid $70 a day for our tent and it was lovely. Please note: Marfa is located on a plateau in the Chihuahuan desert. And if you’ve ever seen a movie about Berbers or people lost in the Sahara you know the desert is cold as balls at night so BRING SWEAT PANTS AND SANDALS. Ain’t no toilets inside the glampin tents!

We arrived in Marfa late, around 7 pm and after quickly surveying the glamping accommodations, I was in love. But then I was presented with the odd dichotomy of Marfa.

Marfa is a beautiful place in an epic setting but unfortunately the hipster transplants that are the gatekeepers of the cool things in town are fucking assholes. And I mean proper, real, hard farting assholes. I’m talking Boston level assholes with none of the working class charm. I’m talking LA party assholes with none of the good drugs. Locals born in Marfa are polite. But you won’t deal with them much if you want to see the art. So it presents a conundrum because on one hand there are things worth seeing but on the other hand you must navigate a sea of douchebags to see the cool things. I’d heard from friends that the resident art population was intolerable but I refused to believe it. How? Why? Living in NYC I became unfortunately familiar with people that are arrogant simply because they’ve signed a lease somewhere. It is inexcusable to be a dick but at least in New York you have to bust your ass to make rent so I suppose it’s slightly more justified; But in Marfa? Really? We found it confusing. It’s like a bunch of angry college radio dj’s created a dystopian butthole fiefdom in the desert. And yeah my girlfriend and I were wearing matching cowboy hats because we found them at REI and thought it was funny but that was not worth the amount of eye rolling we were forced to endure. From the front desk attendants at El Cosmico, to the barista at Frama (coffee spot), to the waitress at one of the only dinner spots in town, Cochineal, they’re a miserable lot. Whether you are a ten year old dragged along for your parent’s vacation, or the coolest artist in Paris that lives in a refrigerator, the artists in Marfa will make you feel like a fanny pack covered super tourist. Did I mention I hated the hipsters in Marfa? If you are reading this on your phone in Marfa and sipping wine out of a clear plastic cup, you are most likely the butthole mentioned above. However annoyed or angry this rant makes you, dealing with you is worse than that. And the only thing more miserable than talking to you is hearing you talk to each other (takes a deep breath).

And that’s all I know about them buttholes that live in Marfa. ANYWAY. Stay at El Cosmico. If we’d been a little more flush I think we would have chosen a tipi but our tent was just fine. We only had a day but I think it would be best to base yourself at El Cosmico and spend like 3 days cruising around the Trans-Pecos region.

We woke up and wanted coffee. There are too many boutique coffee options in a town of 2,000 so I’ll narrow your options to Squeeze Marfa. It’s excellent coffee and the ladies we encountered at the counter were more pleasant than the prime son of a bitch that runs Frama (although he makes a damn good iced Vietnamese coffee.) When our little espresso cups ran dry we hopped back on our bikes and rode to the real Mona Lisa of Marfa, MARFA BURRITO. Holy shit this place is good. Ramona, the owner, matriarch, goddess, and 3 or 4 other women that do not speak English make burritos in a house and Matthew Mcconaughey loves it, need I say more? I’d have sex with one of these burritos. For 7 dollars it is a world-class meal. Ramona is a sweetheart and you will feel like you are at home. The only dining experience I’ve had comparable to this is at the Garden Brunch café in Nashville, TN.

We tried to burn off some of the burrito by riding our bikes to Marfa’s most famous art installation, The Chinati foundation. The large outdoor cement blocks are free of charge but to see anything else you have to pay. We opted for free and walked around outside. And again besides the person at the front desk it’s a great experience. Try and do it early because it is the desert and deserts get warm. We tried to ride over to the Marfa book foundation but it was closed for remodeling. For a cold beverage we rode over to The Get Go Grocery. It’s an overpriced hipster grocery store stocked with all your Brooklyn vegan hits like Kale and tofu something. It is also the site of my favorite interaction during my day in Marfa. My girlfriend wanted to buy some s’more supplies for the evening because we were camping and we are normal people and that’s a reasonable thing to want to do. So she went to the front counter to ask the miserable hipster about s’mores.

My girlfriend: Hi! Do you have stuff to make s’mores?

Miserable hipster: (rolls eyes) Um… (sighs) we may have marshmallows in the chocolate section.

My girlfriend: Ok, thanks; and graham crackers?

MH: (sighs) Um, yeah we have gluten free graham crackers. (looks down aisle). Yeah we’re out of gluten free graham crackers. (turns and looks away).

So we left. We rode our bikes back to our hip tent and got in our car. For a day trip Big Bend is too far away. A nice option for outdoors stuff if you can’t make it to Big Bend is driving to the top of the mountain near Fort Davis. Put the Mcdonald observatory into your GPS and on the way there you’ll see an entrance to the state park. There’s a national and a state park, go to the state park. It’s a tad confusing after entering but when in doubt drive up the mountain. If you make it to the top it’s a gorgeous place to see the sunset. It makes you understand why people were motivated and inspired to move out to Marfa.

We wanted dinner. Marfa can actually run out of food on a busy weekend and there are limited restaurants so make a reservation and call places beforehand. Marfa Burrito closes at 2 otherwise I would have eaten there. There’s another Mexican place called Mandos but it sucks. The place everyone recommends is called Cochineal. If you’ve managed to avoid eye rolling during your day in Marfa you’re guaranteed some at Cochineal. It is good but it’s overpriced. We tried a lot of stuff and the only things I was impressed by were the fried artichokes, grilled quail over couscous, and the mezcal old fashioned. My main issue with the restaurant is that I was expecting a more southwestern inspired menu. Something you would find at Austin’s, South Congress Cafe. Call me crazy, but when I’m in the Chihuahuan desert I don’t particularly want seafood chowder. I understand that modern supply chain management is a wonderful thing but god knows how long it takes to get ingredients for the chowda. Even if it’s fast it’s like going to a seafood restaurant on the beach in Miami and getting Alaskan Salmon. I want what’s in Miami! I say go to Cochineal once then buy some hot dogs and grill em at El Cosmico. S’mores if you can.

Next to Cochineal is a little cowboy saloon called Lost Horse that hipsters laid siege to and now own. At first it seems normal. Old pool tables. Cheap lone star. Things I can agree with. Then the bar tender will turn on some dumb loud obscure video from the 70s on a projector screen and it fucks up the whole evening. It’s an odd assortment of depressed people. Neither of us liked it much. After two beers we opted to go back to our tent and play chess.

We left the next day and on the way out stopped in Valentine, TX to see the Prada store. It’s cool; something worth seeing once. From there we started the long trek back to Dallas. For that drive bring a case of water, snacks, and go to the bathroom before cause the desert is slim on toilets. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. We saw a herd of Bighorn sheep and pronghorns (like a Texas antelope that’s actually closer in relation to a Giraffe).

There is more to see in Marfa but you need to plan it out. You have to call a lot of the gallery owners and have them come open their space. If I went back I’d focus on Big Bend because Bighorn sheep aren’t prone to rolling their eyes. But maybe it’s me. Maybe the hipsters of Marfa are like that super cool refrigerator in Paris; filled with computers, birthed in what looks to be an Apple store, and something I just don’t understand.

A trip to Marfa is worth it. West Texas in general is worth it. Just remember to bring your boots, a hat, sunscreen, water, snacks, and a thick skin to deal with all them buttholes… and rattlesnakes… I dunno. Whatever man.

If you loved this let me know. If you hated this let me know. If you want to send me anthrax, don’t.

Danny writes about music and other things. You can find him Here. Right here.

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