Texas Road Trip: Historic Fort Davis and Marfa

Prada Marfa, one of several roadside art installations outside Marfa TX

Fort Davis is the name of the town, “Historic Fort Davis” is the reconstructed early fort, established here in the 1850’s to protect the growing number of emigrants, and the mail and freight traffic to support and supply them in the westward expansion.  My national parks pass gave me entry and access to a walking tour of the fort grounds to see the buildings that have been restored, and exhibits in some of them depicting the conditions and resources of a military outpost.  It was very interesting to learn of the difficult conditions on the frontier, and the life of enlisted men stationed at the fort.  It is probably not so interesting to small children; a rudimentary awareness of US history is helpful.  I recommend visiting in the morning, before the temperatures become excessive.

After a morning at the fort, I headed to another landmark, Prada Marfa, an architectural artwork which is not in Marfa, but just outside Valentine TX.  Valentine itself is a poor, worn down small town, though people in Marfa regard it as having good schools.  I didn’t see any activity on the streets—just trucks driving through.

The Prada Marfa exhibit is an odd contrast with the remote desert it is surrounded by.  Oddly, it is quite popular.  Cars and trucks would stop on either side of the road for their tourist occupants to check it out.  There was not a time during my 30-minute stay that there wasn’t at least one other tourist.

One was a trucker from San Diego who decided since he was on US Highway 90 for his route, he should stop and check it out.  Others were usually in upscale cars with out-of-state licenses (like me).

I’m told that part of the artwork concept is to have it gradually decay with the years.  Apart from the fading awnings and dusty windows, it seemed in pretty good shape for having 17 years of desert exposure.  The Wikipedia article describes episodes of occasional vandalism, subsequently repaired.

Tourists stop on US 90 to visit Prada Marfa (click to enlarge, again to zoom).

I headed back through Valentine on to Marfa, a larger town that seems to have a thriving art community.  On the way I passed a roadside artwork, “Giant”, painted figure boards propped up, with western music playing, as if on a movie set.

I also passed the iconic Stardust Motel sign.  The motel itself is long gone, the ground is flattened, but it seemed to me that the light bulbs and neon tubes were in too good condition—I would have expected most bulbs to be broken.  Maybe some artist resurrected it for a while.

I stopped at Marfa Burrito, a small family place that served a large burrito.  I had the “Primo” with beans, potatoes, veggies, oversized for the plate, larger and longer than the ones I was familiar with from Chipotle.  Not as delicious as my other recent Mexican food experiences, but I’m guessing quite authentic—and quite filling.

A few hours later, it was hot, I needed a restroom, and even though I was still full, I went to the Marfa Dairy Queen to sit in the air-conditioned room and use their facilities, ordering a small Blizzard treat, which was way too much.

Behind the DQ was an artists gallery, “Marfa Open“; I wandered in.  It seemed like a home, and the owner/artist was speaking to two visitors in “art speak”.  I followed along as best I could, trying to discern the distinctions between “minimalist” (which he disliked) and the other “-ists” being described.  He showed a couple avant-garde Russian pieces—painted wooden montages (what do you call a mix of imagery, including photos? –collage?)

There was a place a block from the DQ called “The Film Shop”.  Its sign advertised camera rentals including 120.  I didn’t go in, but now I wish I had.  Maybe I would have encountered a community of film artists.

There is a public radio station in Marfa, perhaps a lonely voice in this part of Texas.  I saw the office, not open to visitors, but next to it was a Marfa Studio of Arts, which displayed work of local artists and promoted art education for school students.  The person at the reception counter revealed some things about Marfa art—it seems it has been “commandeered” by outsiders, who bring art “events” to the town, but exclude the local artists and local vendors! 

Marfa was established as an artist center by Donald Judd, who brought his students and followers here half a century ago.  The community thrived and made a name in the art world.  Now however, Marfa is considered a quirky location to have a celebrity wedding event—catered by the celebrity’s choice, usually not the locals.  They jet their parties and caterers in.  I sensed the resentment from my host at the Marfa Studio of Arts.

I headed back to Fort Davis, passing some enormous industrial buildings along the way.  They are large enough to be seen from the skyline drive overlook where I had set up my cameras the previous night.  I had speculated on the distant structures. Giant pig farm?  Solar power array? No, it was a vast greenhouse in the desert, providing vegetables to this region of Texas, and probably beyond.

Back at Fort Davis, I tried to get some ice to replenish my heat-strained cooler, but the store where I had acquired supplies before was completely out.  Evidently I was not the only one seeking ice.  Not far away was an old train caboose, renovated to become an ice cream shop, which also sold ice!  I now wish that I hadn’t had that Dairy Queen Blizzard; real ice cream would have been much more satisfying.  But I was able to buy some ice.

I returned to the skyline overlook to set up my cameras for another night of practice for the lunar eclipse.  I was able to position my tripods in (approximately) the same footings as last night, and the tracking was much improved.

I could still not see the moon rising through the murk at the horizon, but started the tracking at the prescribed time.  Eventually, 30 minutes later, I could see the moon, well above the horizon.  My blind aim was fairly close, about a frame’s width, but I would like to do better.

I again had visitors, some loquacious, some not.  One couple I had met the night before and they were eager to share their experience at the McDonald Observatory star party.  Others were just passing through, looking to enjoy the sunset.

Cameras ready for tonight’s eclipse practice.

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3 thoughts on “Texas Road Trip: Historic Fort Davis and Marfa

  1. Pingback: Texas Road Trip: McDonald Observatory and Lunar Eclipse Practice | Thor's Life-Notes

  2. Thor, we really enjoyed a night time visit to the MacDonald Observatory and Marfa several years ago. Your pictures bring back great memories.


  3. Pingback: Texas Road Trip: Driving Adventures, Mistakes Made | Thor's Life-Notes

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